What a little leaguer taught a VP of risk management about perspective

Tips from the top

It was a busy day in the emergency room when Lynne Lee, a fairly new nurse at the time, learned a lesson that would stick with her forever. 

It was not a lesson of remaining calm in the stressful environment that the ER often is. Instead, it was a lesson on patient perspective from a young, little league baseball player with a broken finger.

Lee, a registered nurse and risk attorney, is the vice president of risk management for Encompass Health. Though it’s been decades since the incident, she still remembers this young patient.

His seemingly small injury gave her a bigger perspective on patient care that she has carried with her during her 38-year career. Working at the ER bedside, she was used to treating patients who were car wreck victims holding on to their last breaths, people complaining of chest pain on the brink of a heart attack or someone with a terrifying allergic reaction.

A broken finger was nothing …  or so she thought.

Lee remembers the young patient holding back tears and staying strong through the pain as the doctor examined his finger. The doctor then confirmed his injury and let the young boy know it would keep him from playing baseball for a year. In response to the boy’s upset face after receiving the news, Lee looked at him and casually remarked, “Really? It’s just a year.” 

That’s when it all fell apart, and she can still picture his face to this day. It crumpled and he poured out more tears than she could imagine.

“What didn’t seem important to me in that moment was the whole world to him,” Lee recalled.

That moment is one that led her decision making for the remaining 20 years she worked as an ER nurse. Now, as the vice president of risk management, it’s the face she still sees when she’s approached with questions from the Company’s hospital teams about a patient who wishes to pursue a certain activity or attend a certain event during their rehabilitation stay.

“We get this wonderful privilege of helping people in critical parts of their lives,” Lee said. “Everyone gets caught up in the moment. The least we can do is step back and ask the patient what they want.”

Lee offers the following tips on how to truly connect with a patient and understand their perspective: 

  1. Ask questions and get to know the patient to find out where they find joy in their lives and what matters most to them. Is it getting back to work? Is it being able to attend their daughter’s wedding or go to their senior prom? Is it attending their grandson’s little league baseball game?

  2. Think about how you can use what powers you have to make a difference in that patient’s life. If getting home to their wife is important to them, give them a constant reminder of what they’re working for by mentioning her name frequently. If they love baking cookies, make that part of their occupational therapy. If they are a native Spanish speaker and you know the language, provide that level of comfort by speaking to them in their preferred language.

  3. Get creative in your approach to patient care. At Encompass Health’s rehabilitation hospitals, the patient’s stay averages 14 days, so there is time to get to know the patient and see their improvement, but it’s also an opportunity to get creative with the patient’s therapy. Speech therapists may incorporate a patient’s favorite song in speech therapy to help them work on rhythm or speech-language skills. Physical therapy may set walking distances that match the patient’s neighborhood so they can feel comfortable about walking their dog around the block again.

  4. Read Atul Gawande’s book “Being Mortal“as inspiration. The book tells the story of a surgeon, his daily professional struggles and how he discovered a new perspective on care from a hospice nurse, a geriatrician and other healthcare reformers. He learned how these individuals weren’t focused on providing a good death, but instead focused on providing a good life for their patients.

Most of us have heard the phrase, “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” and it’s an important practice to follow, Lee said. No matter the situation, it’s important to look at things from both sides and to remain objective.

Your perspective might make the difference between striking out and hitting a home run.

Lynne Lee is the vice president of risk management for Encompass Health Corp., formerly HealthSouth Corp. She oversees risk-related issues for all lines of insurance for more than 133 acute rehabilitation hospitals. Lynne graduated from the University of Alabama, Birmingham School of Nursing in 1983. During the first 20 years of her career she served in many clinical and administrative roles and obtained a master’s degree in public and private management from Birmingham Southern College. She was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 2001 after graduating from Birmingham School of Law and moved into the position of risk manager at the former HealthSouth Medical Center. In late 2001, she joined the HealthSouth Corp. risk management team. In 2005, she received a master’s degree in bioethics and health policy from Loyola University, Chicago. She is also an instructor in the Master’s of Science in Healthcare Law and Policy program at Samford University.

Tips from the top is an ongoing series highlighting Encompass Health leadership and what inspires and motivates them.