Eleven and a half years ago, I lay flat on my back in rapidly growing terror as my obstetrician revealed to me every expectant mother’s worst nightmare: “The fetus is in distress, and we have to do an emergency caesarean section surgery.” Being my first pregnancy, it was my first time in my life that I was in hospital for any procedure and my terror level went from moderately high to stratospheric levels. I must have started hyperventilating because the obstetrician, who had at least 30 years of experience under his senior belt, shouted at me: “Ah stop it, don’t be a baby,” in a very terse manner as the nurses started preparing to wheel me into the theater. I’ve never forgotten his words till this day, largely because he had been the most genteel, soft spoken and caring pre-natal provider up until that moment in the labor ward. My brain has thankfully shut down any memories thereafter because I was catatonic with fear rather than consoled by the fact that this was a very experienced surgeon who in whose hands my life as well as my unborn child would be in.
That experience led me to understand the term “bedside manner” from a medical perspective. You may have the top notch surgeon or specialist treating you, but if they do not have the capacity to calm you down and build your confidence from their professional demeanor as you lie on your hospital bed, then you might as well be treated by Dr. Google. Needless to say, I moved to another practitioner thereafter, and after five surgeries, I now always ask him whether he is going to use Dr. O, as the anesthesiologist. You see, your anesthesiologist is the last person you see before you go into the land of the unknown, and his bedside manner is absolutely critical in your mental state as you say goodbye – temporarily – to the world as you know it. Dr. O has the best bedside manner on this earth: he cracks jokes, has twinkling eyes above his masked face which are the last thing I see and he genuinely displays an interest in me as a patient, rather than as another body lying on the surgical table. There’s a point to this rambling medical history soliloquy. Going for surgery has to be the most traumatic experience for any individual, short of driving in Nairobi’s traffic at peak time on a rainy day. In my professional working life over the last sixteen years, I have met only 3 people who are the equivalent of Dr. O in the workplace.
These three (surprisingly all are female) have provided for me a steadying and extremely calming buffer when there is a state of total flux and chaos. They have the perfect bedside manner for the chaos that some workplaces present. Last Tuesday, one of the three buffers was called by a Higher Power to execute her role in a far more glorious office. JC, as I will refer to her here, was fiercely private and assiduously guarded the fact that she was terminally ill. When I was told that she had transitioned, I was in total shock. How? I had worked with her on an assignment where she had been running around making sure that all the logistics were going smoothly. “She was going through chemotherapy at that time, actually,” was the response. What? But she was always the first in the room before training started and the last in the room when participants left, were my unspoken thoughts. “She never wanted anyone to know that she was sick, coming to work helped keep her mind off her medical condition,” I was told. For those who follow the television show “Scandal” or “The Fixer” on M-Net, JC was Olivia Pope: everything was “handled” and it was “handled” with speed, efficiency with only one set of instructions given. JC was the fixer.
She never raised her voice, but she had a way of tilting her head ever so slightly when something didn’t meet her approval and only those who knew her well would realize that she disagreed with what was being discussed. Small in stature but big in spirit, JC would quietly go about her business preferring to melt into the background rather than bluster her presence.
As a result, I knew that even if things were falling apart in the background of an event, no one would ever know. She would silently crack her whip with the service providers letting her down in the background while displaying a calm demeanor to anyone who looked, never letting on that things were thick. I have spent the last 24 hours since I heard the news racking my brain as to whether I ever told her how much I enjoyed working with her. I know I did not tell her that things were not the same when she was absent from an event that she was supposed to be part of two weeks ago, and that her absence was louder than a million church bells chiming at noon. I wish I had sent her a text message to say as much, but I didn’t. My last communication with her was exactly two weeks before she transitioned. Her words: “Keep me in your prayers please” as she headed out to India for treatment. The outpouring of grief, shock and sadness from people who’ve known her has been phenomenal. She clearly was not in the background as much as I thought. She was invisible, yet visible, quiet yet loud. At 34 years, JC left a legacy that will endure and a bedside manner that cannot be replaced.
Heaven is a richer place for having JC there, and I have no doubt that she is “handling” any crisis that may arise up there. My lesson from all this: Appreciate a colleague today who is doing a phenomenal job, it may be the last thing they ever hear from you.