Yesterday, in clinic, she saw me.
I was running through my day, busy, too many on the schedule, short on fellow staff, and not enough time for anything.
She was late for her appointment, by a lot. I agreed to see her if she would wait for me to catch up.
I reviewed her chart, realized her reason for coming, and my clinician mind and human body were thankful it would be a quick visit.
I took a breath outside the room, to reset myself, as I do with every visit. Walking in, I introduced myself, shook her hand, and asked what brought her in today.
Partway through taking her health history, balancing, to the best of my ability, the need to look at the computer and the desire to look at her while we speak, she interrupts me.
“You have beautiful eyes.”
For the first time that day, and the day before, and the day before, I remembered myself. Not as a clinician, not as a midwife, not as a writer of charts, not as an orderer of labs, not as a revealer of bad news.
I remembered myself, in my body, in my spirit, that I shine through, and that others see me.
And she saw me.
Throughout my day, I see people. The phrase “I see patients,” is a common one in clinical care. It does not impart any actual depth in how one performs that task. For me, when I say, “I see patients,” I almost choke up with the weight of that phrase. I see people’s lives in 15 minutes. I see the weight people carry on their shoulders and behind their eyes. I see their families running around them. I see society and culture reflected in women’s projections of themselves. I see rape victims. I see joyous first time mothers. I see adolescents exploring their sexuality. I see people struggling with suicidal thoughts. I see couples emotionally distraught over infertility. I see people after unwanted miscarriages and wanted abortions. I see people struggling to get out of bed to do the dishes. I see people simply looking to get their cervical cancer screening done and over with.
Often, reflecting on how other providers “see” patients, I worry that not everyone “sees” people the way I do. I go out of my way to consider the way I interact with people, shaking their hand, looking at them and engaging in conversation long before I log into the computer to check boxes and diagnose what I’ve seen for billing purposes. I start every visit intentionally happy and kind, and alter my approach depending on where they are and what they need: my own way of starting each visit by “meeting someone where they are.” If the tone of their voice or the rate of their speech changes, I change my behavior to let them know I’m paying attention. If they veer the topic away from its original path, I clue in closer. I always ask about safety, sexuality, and life goals, letting them know that I want to know if they want to share, creating space for me to see them however they would like me to.
It is immediately obvious if someone has not been adequately “seen” by other providers. For some, my approach is welcomed: they will communicate that they haven’t felt heard in a long time, or that they appreciated how I did not look at the computer, or they’ll inquire further about midwifery because of how I made them feel. For others, I have seen that my care throws them off, that in some ways it’s almost too much, too intimate, that I’m too engaged or too interested in them for their comfort, that they now only expect to being asked the required questions, poked, prodded, and dismissed. Perhaps it’s a product of our capitalist healthcare system, valuing patients as money generators. Perhaps it’s a product of our racist society, devaluing people of color as deserving of respect and humanity. Perhaps it is also just meeting people where they are, and realizing that a visit with a provider doesn’t have to be a deep interaction for people to experience good healthcare. Being seen can be just as simple as those words mean at first glance.
As much reflection and work as I put into ensuring that people know I see them, I rarely think about people seeing me.
Her seeing me, I realize, came at a time in my life when I’m struggling personally, and perhaps it hit more deeply than it would have another day. She said it on a day of much reflection on how I want to see myself, on a morning of seeing the love and gifts from friends who see my imperfect and growing self, and in a moment when I’m reflecting on how I want to be seen by people in my personal life in the future.
To have been seen by someone, for whom my job was to see them, reminded me of me. It reminded me that it’s me providing care, not just an embodiment of opinions and passions and ideals, an amorphous aura of who I portray myself to be and advertise to students and coworkers and the public. It’s me. I am all of those things, but it’s me in there.
In no way do I need to be seen to provide care, to fully see others, or to remember myself within my midwifery self.
But on that day, in my life, in that moment, it meant the world.
“You have beautiful eyes.”
“Thank you, that was incredibly kind of you to say. Even in just our few moments together I can see you have a beautiful heart.”