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A view from the other side of health care

[Editor’s note: This excerpt is taken from an article written by Sister Ann Margaret O’Hara and originally published in the National Religious Retirement Office newsletter. Find the full article here.]

On July 7, 2017, I experienced an event that changed my life. During heart surgery for mitral valve repair, I had a stroke. It was completely unexpected, leaving me in a situation I never imagined and for which I was completely unprepared.

Sister Ann Margaret O’Hara shows off her great progress in recovering from her stroke as she gets out of her wheelchair to read at the Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Feast Day Mass in Oct. 2019.

From early in my life I have known myself to be independent, capable, active, able to think through situations and challenges and to organize a plan of action. I was an “in-charge” kind of person who knew how to fix things and how to get systems to work well.

During the 15 years I served in leadership for the Sisters of Providence, our health care facility was built, licensed and certified.

In an instant, my whole life changed. In the weeks and months following the stroke, as my brain slowly healed and began putting the pieces back together, I felt like I had lost my life. I lost my residence, my ministry, my role in liturgical ministries and the capacity to drive and to walk. I lost the life I had always known and now had a life I did not recognize. I had moved from being capable and independent to a dependence I had never known; from being a creator of health care facilities and structures to a recipient of their services.

The receiving end of medical care

I want to use my experience of being on the receiving end of medical care to make some recommendations.

Initially, I was neither able to care for myself nor to think clearly to make decisions about the kind of care I wanted. As I slowly began to recover some of my cognitive and physical capacities, I experienced times that I was not included in decisions when I could have been. What emerges for me is the importance of including the patient as much as possible in decisions about her care and not presuming she is unable to participate. The simple act of engaging the patient in these decisions greatly enhances the individual’s sense of dignity and inclusion while promoting a greater sense of well-being.

In addition, there are numerous areas in the health care experience where appropriate, timely and empathic communication can make a huge difference in the patient’s sense of dignity.

Other key areas are sensitivity to the patient’s feelings about loss of privacy and a patient’s desire to do all she can for herself. Even when a patient may not be able to understand, the simple effort to explain what’s going on and what she can expect will make a difference. Given the vulnerability and often the cognitive limitations of the patient, these explanations need to be repeated over and over again.

As most healing journeys are, mine has been gradual and incremental. The assistance of various therapies has contributed to the healing that is taking place.

The healing continues, and sharing these reflections is a part of that journey for me. I am still in the process of learning about dependence and interdependence. But I am learning how to make friends with my own dependence.

(Originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Ann Margaret O'Hara

Sister Ann Margaret O'Hara

Sister Ann Margaret has been a Sister of Providence for 64 years. She has ministered in education and administration, including serving in elected leadership as General Superior of the Sisters of Providence. Today she lives in Providence Hall at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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  1. Avatar Jeanne Kenny, S.P. on June 28, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    BRAVO Ann Margaret,
    You are a walking/talking miracle and oh so right about showing and receiving dignity daily while a patient in health care.

  2. Avatar Mary E Heins on June 29, 2020 at 9:13 am

    Thanks, Sr. Ann Margaret, for your honest sharing of what must be a very, very difficult position to be in. I admire, tremendously, your continued efforts and progress in healing — it’s an example to all of us as we age how we are called to adapt our lifestyle, to accept the help of others, and to find something meaningful to fill our hours. And especially to fight against bitterness that can creep into our hearts. Old age isn’t for sissies, as we say.
    Thanks for your good example!
    Mary Heins, candidate

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