If you’d met G at the end of her life, you might have been tempted to describe her as “frail,” but a few moments in the presence of this spunky spitfire with short, curly hair would convince you there should be another word for it. Although there was no doubt that her cancer was depleting her body, her spirit remained undaunted. Her wrinkled skin had the markings of age and illness, but the truth was in her eyes: She was living what was left of life for all she was worth.
I met G (I’m changing her name for privacy reasons) in a hospice facility where I spent over a decade of my professional life as the medical director. It had been earmarked as historical, even though it didn’t have any notable historical connections. But the designation did put some serious restrictions on alterations we could make to turn it into a better medical facility.
For example, the 18-bed home for the dying could never have an elevator to reach its two upper floors. The architecture wouldn’t allow it, and the historic preservation board had forbidden it. So each and every patient assigned to live their last days on the upper floors was treated to a ride up a chair lift—around the gorgeous, twisting spiral staircase—when it was working. It broke down so often that we had the repairman on speed dial.
It was in a pale-green room, off a landing between the second and third floors, that I met G. For someone who was dying, her energy was electric. She’d been my patient for three or four weeks when I stopped by on one of my regular Wednesday visits and ducked in, as I did with all of the patients, to see if I could do anything for her. In this case, I do mean “ducked” literally, as the tiny room barely left space for my large frame.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked G.
It was the same question, more or less, that I always asked. The sort of throwaway line you use to lubricate the little semi-social interactions with strangers and acquaintances. Most of the time I didn’t even expect a real response, but today was different. I was about to get my first real lesson in how to care for another human being.
Her eyes lit up with mischief and she pulled me in for a conspiratorial whisper. “Not unless you can get me a nice dry martini, Doc,” she said before chuckling.
I laughed at the absurdity of the request from such an unlikely source, made sure she had no other needs, and then finished my rounds of the 13 or 14 other patients in the home at the time. This hospice facility was my second job. I was there most of every Wednesday and on call for the rest of the week. After I finished my rounds, I headed home, tired from a long day’s work.
Somewhere between dropping my bag into the car and the front wheels hitting my driveway, I remembered G’s request and laughed out loud. In another era, she’d be what you’d call a “real character.” Then I had a crazy idea. What if I actually did it? What if, instead of blowing off this seemingly silly request, I honored it? What if next Wednesday, when I stopped in to check on G before leaving, I actually mixed a pair of martinis and shared a sip with her? How fun would that be?
For the next few days, I played with the idea, and each time it made me smile. What was the actual harm? I wondered. After all, it was hospice care, where the occasional glass of wine for an anniversary was far from unheard of. We didn’t have the same strict policies as general-population hospitals. How much trouble could I get into? I knew they wouldn’t take my license, and the more I thought about it, the more a plan came to mind.
It was a bizarre sort of splitting of moral hairs that finally convinced me. If I waited just late enough, I could go in right after 5—say 5:07 p.m.—and I wouldn’t technically be on the clock anymore. I wouldn’t be there in an official medical capacity. I’d just be a friend, stopping by for happy hour.
By the time the next Wednesday rolled around, I had the fixings, as I’m a bit of a gin lover myself. That bottle of Tanqueray Ten, in its sharp green glass with silver trim I’d splurged on when I’d started receiving a real salary as a full-fledged doctor, would be just the thing. This was the kind of special occasion I felt certain that people saved expensive bottles of gin for anyway.
Before I left for the hospice facility that morning, I gathered my supplies, the beautiful bottle of Tanqueray, a bottle of Martini Rossi Vermouth, a silver martini shaker, two “official” martini glasses, and a round, silver tray with a little fat butler. If I was going to do this, it had to be right. Dixie cups just wouldn’t cut it. I stashed the supplies in my car and headed off to work, watching the clock as the hours ticked by until my surprise.
Just after 5, I double-checked the time, grabbed my supplies, and stopped by the kitchen to deposit a few ice cubes into the shaker. With my stomach fluttering as if I were on my way to defend a dissertation, I climbed the stairs to the “second and a half” floor, as I’d come to think of it. G’s room was there, light spilling in from the two large windows. I remember there were two beds in this almost impossibly small room. The one on the left, nearest the door, was empty, and G’s pillow was on the one to the right on the far side of the room.
As I entered, I saw her in the chair at the foot of her bed, her short, curly hair almost glowing in the light from the window. She was watching the world pass by outside the glass, lost in some private thought. When she heard me come in, she smiled, then her eyes widened in recognition of what I was carrying. She sat up in the chair, practically bouncing with anticipation.
I made my way across the room and found just enough space to sit next to her bed, facing her in her chair at the window. I opened the shaker, unstopped the gin, and poured it in just enough for two sippable martinis. I then capped the shaker, and as carefully as I could, shook it.
I shifted the small tray carefully. The two martini glasses sat squarely on the painted butler’s chest as he looked up at me disapprovingly. I handed one glass to G and took the other for myself, clinking the edge of my glass against hers. I don’t recall that we exchanged a single word, but I don’t remember ever seeing a sweeter smile. We sipped, we laughed, and we sat, side by side, being human for a precious quarter of an hour.
In that time, I realized something: I think it might have been the very first time in my career that I had ever truly cared for another human being. Oh, sure, I loved people. I’d even willingly served them. But in this moment, I was giving her something that didn’t come from my brain, or from all of the medical knowledge I had managed to cram into it over the years.
This wasn’t about her rare medical condition; she wasn’t a prime candidate for some experimental treatment. In fact, I had no hope of curing her at all. But in that one moment, I learned a lot about living. I’d like to think that these days, as a healthcare leader, I carry a bit of G with me every day. I don’t get to spend as much time with patients on a regular basis, but I know we can impact our patients and their families in big and small ways.
I was trained in internal medicine and had mapped out a career in academic medicine for myself, treating patients and teaching. Once I got out in the real world, though, I got swept up on a different path that took me into the world of hospice care. Making plans and then being flexible when priorities change or the external environment shifts is not only a critical leadership skill, but it can lead to wonderful and serendipitous outcomes. G helped to underscore that for me.
Our martini together was also a reminder of how managers can get so fixed on key metrics that they forget that they’re ultimately leading and serving people. Putting the needs of those people front and center is vital. The most important thing to someone who works for you may be something that you’ve never considered—but your capacity to help them achieve it is, in part, what makes you an effective leader. If it’s important to them, it should be important to you.
In hospice care, there’s something special about this twilight, when all the fighting is done and the peaceful surrender to the end is underway. It’s pure, the life that is lived in those last days—at least for some patients. G helped me learn something that all my years of training had not: how to truly have love for a patient.
In the following days, every time I would see her, she was quick to share the story of the stolen moment we’d shared.
“You know, I asked Doc for a martini, and he actually brought me one, and one for him too!” she said and laughed. I think she told everyone in the building at least once. We don’t get to decide which of our actions carry the most impact. It’s not always about what we think is important. The kindness of a gesture is in the mind of the receiver, and with G, there was no doubt that my crazy idea had been one of my best.