What to say? What to do?

Laura and Nathan Yoho

One of the things I have always struggled with as a person and a health care provider is how to approach a friend, a colleague, a patient who is having personal challenges. How do you let them know you are thinking of them without running the risk of being viewed as overly intrusive or just plain nosey? All of us have experienced difficult times, and we know many friends and colleagues who have as well. Whether it be illness or loss of a friend or a loved one, there is an internal mechanism that causes us to want to help. The problem is what to say or what to do?

Our family story, the loss of our beautiful daughter-in-law Laura to brain cancer, and circumstances of the birth of our granddaughter Caralyn have been well chronicled. Laura and Nathan were a perfect couple. They battled her disease as a team and lived as normal a life as possible under very difficult circumstances. Three brain surgeries, radiation and countless rounds of chemotherapy over a 27-month period. Laura lost her battle on July 23, 2013.

My wife, Donna, Nathan and I are private people. We tend to not openly discuss personal issues, the exception being the few individuals who we feel should have some knowledge of the situation. Laura and Nathan were a popular couple; they knew a lot of people. Her battle against cancer was covered in various media as a featured news item to help others continue to fight the good fight through exercise and wellness. Word travels quickly.

Throughout Laura’s illness and following her death, we have been overwhelmed by the compassion, love and support shown to us by so many people in so many ways – family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, Laura’s physicians and people we have never met. We are so blessed to be surrounded by so many caring people.

From this experience, we have learned much in terms of how we should interact with people who are experiencing a difficult time. And this is what we have learned:

  1. It does not matter whether people are private or not,
  2. let them know you are thinking of them or you are hoping for the best  rather than asking how is everything going or how is the person doing. That can be a very uncomfortable question to answer. Just let the person offer if he or she wants.
  3. If you are not comfortable with a face-to-face approach, just send a simple “thinking of you” note or card.
  4. Don’t ask “What can I do?”; just do something you feel would be helpful.
  5. Don’t compare your own experience with the person’s circumstance.

Doing one or more of these simple things helps far beyond what you can imagine. And lastly, avoiding the situation is a lost opportunity for you to bring comfort to someone and experience a feeling of goodness.

So what appears to be a complex question and places us in an uncomfortable position really turns out to have a simple answer, with thoughtful meaning. Make it a point to tell someone or send a note that you are thinking of them. The effect is profound.

Oh, and health care providers are people first.

R. Tim Yoho, D.P.M., M.S., FACFAS, is dean of DMU’s College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery. His son, Nathan, and Laura Brammeier wed in August 2011. After she was diagnosed with brain cancer, Laura’s best friend volunteered to be a surrogate mother. Nathan and Laura’s daughter, Caralyn, arrived on Nov. 26, 2013. In his Dec. 20 “letter” to her in The Des Moines Register, reporter Daniel Finney stated, “Caralyn, your mother died before you drew your first breath. That’s not fair. But you will know her. Your dad has videos. Your grandparents have pictures and stories…Nobody will ever take the place of the mom you didn’t get to meet. But these kind, selfless people are going to make sure you have everything your mom would have wanted you to have.”

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