Elaine’s War Story: They call me Mister
By Steve Portigal at 6:35 am, Wednesday April 17 2013
Part 50 of 68 in the series War Stories

Elaine Fukuda (@elaine_fukuda) is a design research consultant from California.

I admit I don’t have a lot of experience with children but the opportunity to shadow a patient through an entire day’s hospital visit was one to not pass up. The patient being 13 years old added another layer of consent and assent, a mythical ethnographic research unicorn of sorts.

The goal of shadowing was to understand the experience of the entire visit from start to finish, through multiple provider visits, labs, tests, and the waiting times in between. I met the patient and her mother as they were pulling into the parking garage and started the day with a scan. During the next two hours she patiently laid in a claustrophobic tunnel, and did everything as asked, from changing positions ever so slightly, holding her breath for 30 seconds at a time, and breathing at a specific pace.

Having fasted since the previous evening, she was ready for lunch but wanting to get everything done before their provider visit, she and her mom decided to get a blood test done before lunch.

We arrived in the pediatrics department and her mother stood in line to check in while I joined the patient in the waiting area. After a few minutes, a volunteer came over for what I felt was a break in our somewhat awkward small talk.

The volunteer was a kind elderly man with a book cart offering free books for patients to take home. The patient, tired from the scan and possibly feeling out of place in the bright and cheerful pediatrics environment shrugged and said there wasn’t anything she liked. Determined, the volunteer took out a “magical coloring book” which colored itself with a flip of a page. She was still not impressed.

Then came the pièce de résistance. From the cart the volunteer pulled out a heavy woven rope and introduced the patient to his friend, Mr. Stick. Mr. Stick had a magic ability you see, with a grand gesture he could become taut. In order to turn back into a rope, the patient was instructed to ask, “Mr. Stick, will you go down?”

The shade of red across the teen’s face had long passed lobster and she and I stared at each other in disbelief. Her mother was still in line across the way, and as the adult I felt responsible but conflicted on what to do. Surely the man had no idea what he was implying? Being a very good sport, she complied and sure enough Mr. Stick fell limp.

But the volunteer didn’t stop there. He turned to me, holding the middle of Mr. Stick, now back in its rigid state. He asked me to tell Mr. Stick to go down, which I did. Nothing happened. The volunteer said I must say “please”, which I did. And again nothing happened. He then said, “I guess Mr. Stick doesn’t go down if you’re not a child.”

“Hey, I think they’re calling your name,” I quickly said to the patient. And with that we escaped the somewhat creepy, but good intentioned volunteer.

“That was awkward,” she said.

It wasn’t until after the blood test and during lunch that we were able to debrief and talk about the encounter with the volunteer. I was afraid the mother would be upset that I hadn’t intervened sooner. She was shocked but laughed, wondering if someone could really be that clueless. As I started to explain what had happened, the patient (who been sitting right next to the volunteer) intervened:

“No, its name was Mr. Stiff, not Stick.”

Me: “Oooh, that’s even weirder.”

Mother: “I’m really curious how you’re going to write this up.”

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