Small Kindnesses, By Danusha Laméris

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”

When our team started to define how to characterize the Joy and Meaning moments, I cynically wondered, “are there any joy and meaning moments left for anyone in pediatrics post-pandemic?!” I will share three personal examples to definitively answer yes! I know there are, and we can help each other see and embrace them. A podcast from Hidden Brain talks about the science of tiny interactions, and the unexpected delight and surprise we can find in them, and how good this can be for our psychological health.

First, not long after our team honed in on focusing on relationships as our “JOY” through connections and talking to others, I started paying closer attention to the hallway conversations with colleagues. The first joyful one that stands out was checking out at the hospital cafeteria one Friday afternoon. I inquired if the person would be working that weekend, and if they had plans. If he was off, I expected him to say he was watching sports (admitting my bias), and I’d planned to ask about what team(s) he supported. He surprised me in saying he was going to spend time on his artwork. I asked about his medium, and if he could show me any pieces, and he got out his phone and shared beautiful, colorful, creative paintings and prints. I was awed and delighted. He smiled and laughed – both happy to share something and to surprise me in the process. It was so cool to learn this dimension of someone at the hospital, our shared work environment, and to look forward to the next time I could hear about his art.

The next hallway conversation was with a colleague in another specialty area who I don’t know very well but we had some distant work together. When she asked how I was doing, I made a split-second decision to be vulnerable and share about the two-year anniversary of my sister-in-law’s death from cancer (who was also my college classmate and friend). This colleague offered condolences and acknowledged family losses she had had as we opened up. We then turned to work, and she shared her appreciation for our residency team’s effort in advancing equity, diversity and inclusion, and pointed out the plaque by the doorway for an award we’d received as evidence. I was so surprised that she knew about that and had taken a moment to celebrate it. I left the ~5 minute conversation feeling uplifted and touched by the connection.

Finally, in trying to “walk the talk” a bit more, I have started a habit of asking residents at the end of a clinic day to share their highlight of the day – a meaningful or joyful moment. Naturally, we have our share of delighting in the cutest patients of the day. Sometimes it is as basic as the good lunch someone enjoyed. Yet, I am constantly struck by how moving many of these reflections are – often with the most difficult patients of the day. Being able to help a struggling teen, or a family that really needs support for a major life event, or a medically complex patient that the resident helped. Most of the time, one of the residents reciprocates and asks me to share, and I get to reflect on my day, too. It’s affirming of the relationships I have with so many families and how I still delight in the moments shared with them in the office. I love sharing these moments with the residents. I think our pauses offer us so much breadth to our work. May we all keep working to find the times we can share them!

Mollie Grow, MD MPH