09/05/2012 09:13 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Empowering Hospital Patients: Let Them Help

At age 16, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I'm not great at accepting help. No, really -- I'm not good at it. But as I've thought about this failing of mine, I've wondered if it may in part explain why I want to be a doctor. Because while I don't like to get help, I love to help others.

Earlier this summer when I was working my volunteer shift at the hospital, I was standing by the nurses' station talking to the secretary for the floor when a nurse came by with a patient hooked-up to an overloaded IV pole.

The elderly patient wore a black knit cap sitting atop wisps of white hair. Her overwhelmingly large black glasses framed deep mahogany skin. She wanted to walk.

We set off down the hall; she grasped my elbow firmly and I gripped her hand. The patient and I paced around the "track" of the seventh floor, the only annoyance being the sticking and jolting IV pole whose wheels all refused to move in the same direction. As I dutifully coaxed along the reluctant IV, ensuring that it never strayed too far from the patient and caused her discomfort, she and I made small talk. To the accompaniment of hallway computers blinking and monitors bleeping, we talked about her children, her grandchildren and how much she loved them all. We talked about her husband and about how ready she was to leave the hospital. And we talked about how much she would miss the kind faces who were her nurses and clinical technicians when she did leave.

Once, twice we passed her room on our turn around the floor, and each time I asked her whether she was sure she didn't want to stop and rest. Each time I was rebuffed. "No, certainly three times would be just fine, thank you."

When we completed our third and final lap, I helped her into her room, persuading the IV pole around to the other side of the bed so she could sit in the reclining chair.

I noticed that her dinner remained largely uneaten on the tray on the table, and so I asked if she was finished with it or whether I should take it away. It was then that she told me to shut the door. With the door shut, she said, in a conspirator's voice, "Sit down for a moment and eat my frozen fruit bar."

At a skinny five-foot-10 and counting, I have elicited many requests from others over the years to "eat up" -- and it's true that I am often hungry. But there, sitting in the patient's room, I had a slightly uneasy feeling that it might be a breach of hospital etiquette to scarf down a patient's food, even if the patient was done.

So I kept refusing, nervously laughing off her requests that I eat. But I'm apparently a terrible liar, so when she asked if I wanted to eat the popsicle and I said "No," she just laughed at me. She pointed so decisively and earnestly to the visitor's chair that, finally, I felt powerless to resist.

Why did it matter to her that I eat her dessert bar? I was just a teenage volunteer on the floor.

For my part, I was struck by her energy and her willingness to interact with me -- she could have just taken my elbow and not said a word as we walked the halls. And that's when it occurred to me. Yes, she was generous with her fruit bar, and her conversation. But mothering me, if only a little bit, seeing past my demurrals, allowed her some modicum not just of humanity, but of control. She was the one in the hospital, but she was taking care of me. Perhaps, like me, she was more comfortable giving help than receiving it.