Beneath the Surface

The oth­er day I went to a hos­pi­tal to com­plete some rou­tine blood tests. My appoint­ment was ear­ly in the day yet when I arrived a num­ber of peo­ple were already wait­ing. The recep­tion­ist could­n’t find my record on her com­put­er and it took a con­fer­ence of sev­er­al staff mem­bers to final­ly locate the order for my tests. “They could be in a cou­ple of places,” one of them said a lit­tle cool­ly. “Why don’t you try under ______?” Her guid­ance was help­ful to the recep­tion­ist, if brisk, but when the right screen came up the exact nature of the tests was unclear. Some­one had to make a phone call, delay­ing things fur­ther. Even­tu­al­ly, I was guid­ed to a back room where I could wait in private.

A few min­utes lat­er, one of the staff who’d been guid­ing the recep­tion­ist took me to anoth­er clin­ic room where the tests would be done. She had an accent, Russ­ian maybe, though I’m cer­tain­ly no expert. We exchanged some pleas­antries. Her man­ner was love­ly, both warm and efficient.

Looks like you are very busy this morn­ing,” I suggested.

Yes, I don’t have any helpers today,” she said, seem­ing­ly in con­tra­dic­tion to the num­ber of staff at the front desk. “So things are going to be a lit­tle crazy.” By this point she was already putting a strap on my arm and had read­ied her needle.

But I’m a pro­fes­sion­al,” she con­tin­ued with a smile. “I can han­dle it.”

And the way she said it, with gen­uine good humor, left no ques­tion in my mind that indeed she would. I’m always grate­ful for such good peo­ple, work­ing hard to make things right and com­pen­sate for prob­lems, not because they are told to or they are afraid of being fired, but because it’s in their heart to do the right thing, no mat­ter what is hap­pen­ing, espe­cial­ly when it comes to help­ing others. 

With­in a few moments I was done and on my way, my blood rest­ing in labeled vials ready for the sci­ence to take over. 

White sticks

Each moment offers a look into the pond, does­n’t it? — a look into an orga­ni­za­tion is what I mean to say: the inad­e­quate sys­tems, per­haps a tech­nol­o­gy prob­lem or one of train­ing or sched­ul­ing; the frus­trat­ed staff putting on a good face for me while things are being sort­ed out and while oth­ers impa­tient­ly wait; the pro­fes­sion­al­ism leak­ing just a hint of the here and now, con­tin­u­ing chal­lenges they face every day. 

The pond reflects a cer­tain amount of sky beneath which we can­not see, but there are clear areas where you see to the bot­tom, although for sure we look through the dis­tor­tions of our own pri­vate assump­tions and experience. 

I like to think that when the water smooths for a moment and you see all the way down, you can observe the true soul of a place — which is actu­al­ly no more than the soul of the peo­ple who are there, what they feel and expe­ri­ence and how they treat each oth­er. You can quick­ly tell whether this is a good place to be or one where each day peo­ple drown just a lit­tle more.

And then you have to decide for your­self how much of all that is per­son­al pro­jec­tion and how much of it is real.


  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Dear Dan,
    It’s great that you man­aged to get inspired even in the most unfriend­ly place on earth, a hos­pi­tal. My expe­ri­ence with hos­pi­tals & doc­tors are most­ly neg­a­tive ones. In a place where one expects every­one to be human and kind, espe­cial­ly when you are anx­ious­ly wait­ing for some tests results, you are treat­ed just as a “cus­tomer”.
    Some doc­tors for­get when they are too busy and pop­u­lar to treat their patients with dig­ni­ty. One of my gyne­col­o­gist once told me while joking:“I can hard­ly remem­ber my patients faces because they all look the same down under”. He thought it was fun­ny, but I knew at that time that there’s no chance for me to be treat­ed with com­pas­sion. I stopped vis­it­ing him afterward 

    It’s a beau­ti­ful post Dan, Thank you!


  • Such a love­ly med­i­ta­tion on the lay­ers we see, and how what we see, in the end, is always more of us. I so appre­ci­ate the exquis­ite writ­ing. Thank you!!!

  • Dear Hoda~

    Yes, there is always some­thing about an offen­sive joke, espe­cial­ly the kind you were sub­ject­ed to, that both leaves a void and defines a cul­ture. Once the joke has hap­pened, it defines not just an offen­sive per­son, but also an offen­sive place, an offen­sive system. 

    The doc­tor prob­a­bly had no idea how much he was com­mu­ni­cat­ing to you about him­self and through him­self, and it is some­times quite dif­fi­cult in such a vul­ner­a­ble moment to assertive­ly say “I don’t appre­ci­ate your humor. Please stop!” It may have been mere­ly thought­less, or thought­less and sex­ist, but it calls up an entire world, does­n’t it? And who would want to be part of that world? Luck­i­ly there are plen­ty of doc­tors and hospitals.

    Thank you — as always — for stop­ping by to share your thoughts and experiences!

    All the best

  • Dear Achim~

    Thank you so much — yes, tru­ly we are caught in the dance of sub­jec­tive and objec­tive, con­stant­ly nego­ti­at­ing the irony of being deceived when most con­vinced of the truth. We seem to see into the pond — yet how much is that is reflec­tion, how much is some­thing else? Well, do you know that phrase, “there’s a cow in your coffee?”

    Many good wish­es to you

  • Hi Dan,
    Won­der­ful post that says many things. The one thing that jumps out to me is that “the pro­fes­sion­al” chose to give you empa­thet­ic care even in tough times.

    As I teach cus­tomer ser­vice, this is always the main point. Look in your heart with *each cus­tomer and choose to give the best care you can at the moment.

    I love your “lay­ers” anal­o­gy. It com­mu­ni­cates this “dig deep” mantra so well!

    Warmest wish­es,

  • Dear Kate~

    I near­ly called this post After all, I’m a Pro­fes­sion­al to empha­size how one per­son­’s actions can com­pen­sate so well for the inevitable glitch­es in the sys­tem. But it real­ly is the mul­ti­ple, shift­ing lay­ers I’m try­ing to get at here, the way a “pond” is con­struct­ed of its reflec­tions as well as its real­i­ties, how we see both the mov­ing sur­face and if we are lucky, some­thing of the “soul” beneath.

    As always, thank you so much for tak­ing a moment to share your insights! Always wonderful!

    Best to you

  • Dan,

    On the health care side, this high­lights why good elec­tron­ic records are need­ed, along with a robust and time­ly exchange of patient data. Anoth­er pas­sion of mine.…

    I love the human con­nec­tion here, more impor­tant than the elec­tron­ic one. It just shows again how peo­ple make things hap­pen through their ded­i­ca­tion, touch, and brief inter­ac­tions. We get a glimpse in to the char­ac­ter of the peo­ple along with the orga­ni­za­tion. Human con­nec­tion pro­duces empa­thy, and empa­thy pro­duces insight.

    Thank you, Dan, for an insight­ful, well-writ­ten post. Jon

  • Dear Dan.

    I love this idea of the “soul of a place.” I think we’re always tun­ing in, at some lev­el, to the soul of a place. What leads, for most peo­ple, is our intu­itive sense of a place — does it feel right, does it feel good? Then the mind com­pen­sates or enhances. 

    And the soul, and what the lay­ers in the pond reveal, is us. Who is this place? We talk about sys­tems and struc­tures and orga­ni­za­tions that are us, tak­ing shape and form. We are the soul of this place.

    Love­ly and thought­ful as always.

  • Dear Jon~

    Human con­nec­tion pro­duces empa­thy, and empa­thy pro­duces insight.” Love­ly, Jon — that is a won­der­ful mantra for the work of sup­port­ing change of all kinds, per­son­al and orga­ni­za­tion­al, one I’ll be applying. 

    It is always so great to find your own insights and exten­sions of the ideas pre­sent­ed. You are awe­some! Many thanks, Jon!

    All the best

  • Dear Louise~

    I love your ques­tion, “Who is this place?” That cap­tures the reflec­tion that is con­stant­ly form­ing and unform­ing on the mov­ing sur­face of expe­ri­ence. Who, indeed. When we think we see “the oth­er” out­side, a clos­er look often reveals anoth­er facet of our­selves being seen from with­in. Beau­ti­ful­ly said, Louise. As always, much grat­i­tude to you!

    Best wish­es

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