For Me, Compassionate Care was a Red Popsicle

Sharon McNally credits her incredible caregivers for providing her with the emotional support she needed as she underwent a series of health scares. Here, Sharon highlights her healthcare challenges, honors her caregivers and shares how a red popsicle truly changed the course of her life. Sharon has channeled her passion in many directions including serving as an active member of the Schwartz Center’s Board of Directors and co-chair of the Center’s Leadership Council.

In January of 1998, I was a 43-year-old mother of three teenagers with a full-time residential real estate career. I had been experiencing intermittent abdominal pain for several months and my caregivers were unable to determine the issue. Eventually, a high fever and intractable pain sent me to the emergency room, where it was discovered that my appendix had ruptured. Little did we know that I would return home three weeks later, weighing 99 pounds following two extensive surgeries. I had a long road to recovery ahead.

To further complicate matters, we discovered that I was allergic to antibiotics when the infectious disease team tried to fight back my infection. I was very, very sick. I had a nasogastric tube down my throat to drain my stomach until it could resume its normal function; a morphine pump for pain; a central line for intravenous feeding; and I was to have nothing by mouth (NPO) but ice chips for the next 21 days. To add to the complexity of my case, 10 days after my initial surgery, I developed abdominal adhesions, requiring an emergency operation to remove the life-threatening intestinal blockage that had developed. I hadn’t nearly recovered from the first surgery, and now I had to recover from another one. I’m not sure that would have been possible without Rita, my night nurse.

When I came back from surgery, Rita went to work, packing pillows around my body. She made it her mission every night to find a way for me to get comfortable enough to sleep. She told me a few nights later that she was concerned about my bravery; she thought it might be a good idea for me to let go and cry. So I did. You can probably guess what the reward for crying was: it was the red popsicle. Rita decided to forgo the NPO orders in my chart knowing that all I had tasted for days was the metallic tinge of my morphine and antibiotic cocktail, and that my throat was raw from the ever-present NG tube. She chose compassion. For the rest of my stay there, I looked forward to Rita’s shift. She knew how much I hurt physically and emotionally and she did everything she could to alleviate my pain and speed up my recovery. And recover I did.

“For the rest of my stay there, I looked forward to Rita’s shift. She knew how much I hurt physically and emotionally and she did everything she could to alleviate my pain and speed up my recovery. And recover I did.”

My next brush with serious illness was three years later, when I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. I was lucky and had a relatively smooth surgery. I recovered from my mastectomy and reconstruction quite easily and the entire episode, while certainly frightening, was strangely easy to navigate. However, four years later, when I developed complications related to my hormonal breast cancer therapy, terror struck a third time. Once again, I ended up in the ER, doubled over with abdominal pain. An emergency physician and nurse told me that I had a large ovarian mass. They suspected I had ovarian cancer. Dr. Jerry Federschneider, my gynecologist, took up where Rita had left off. I had another difficult and painful surgery, necessitating a hospital stay of several days. The very good news was that it wasn’t cancer. A couple of days after being discharged, I developed surgical adhesions again creating an intestinal blockage that brought me back to the ER. I was becoming one of the “frequent fliers” that are discussed when healthcare costs are on the table.

Dr. Federschneider appeared within 20 minutes of my arrival. It became clear I would need a nasogastric tube inserted–an unpleasant procedure for the patient and one that would likely fall to an ER clinician, but Dr. Federschneider quietly said that he was going to do the insertion himself. I was sick and apprehensive, but I trusted him and knew that he was going to make this as tolerable as possible. When a scan showed that I needed emergency surgery – this time to be done by a general surgeon because it was no longer a gynecological issue – he scrubbed in to be there in the OR to assist. I can’t tell you what that meant to me and my family. He had been with us through the entire ordeal of the last few weeks. He had taken calls from various members of my family in the middle of the night when complications arose and he was never in a hurry; he made sure that all of our questions were answered and concerns – to the extent possible – were allayed.

My second surgery was successful and I began the recovery process all over again. Just as several years before, I had lost a great deal of weight, and it would be days before I could attempt eating solid food. Although I was under the care of a general, Dr. Federschneider visited me at least once a day. In his view, I was still his patient and he was going to see me through. When it was decided that I could move on from ice chips and ginger ale to Gatorade, he asked me what my favorite color was – the answer was red, of course — and he showed up in my room with a red Gatorade – and a tube of Chap Stick, because he had noticed that my lips were dry and cracked. I knew that he was very invested in my recovery.  His kindness to me made such a difference.

On one of my last days in the hospital, I told my husband that I had decided to leave my real estate career behind. After this experience, selling houses just wasn’t going to fulfill me anymore. I had been so touched by the dedication and compassion of my caregivers that I was determined to work at Brigham and Women’s Hospital as a fundraiser. I was going to give back.

I am very happy to be part of the Schwartz Center’s work to provide not just thought leadership but also boots-on-the-ground training to medical professionals around the delivery of compassionate care. In the new healthcare environment, resources are scarcer and cost containment efforts are affecting many parts of the patient experience. The best healthcare institutions support the idea that lifting a patient’s spirit helps heal the body, and that the caregivers must tend to that spirit. My experience with compassionate care was the catalyst for a new career and a chance to give back.  For others, it spawns a generosity that is expressed in different ways. My hope for each of you is that your experiences with illness are very rare, and that when and if they occur, there will be someone there with a red popsicle, a Gatorade in your favorite color and balm not just for your lips, but for your soul as well.

Editor’s note: If you have also been touched by a special caregiver, consider honoring them through our Honor Your Caregiver program—it is a unique way to thank a caregiver who has shown everyday acts of compassion to you or a loved one. To learn more about what compassionate care can look like and what you can do as a patient to help receive it, please visit our page

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