Sometimes, in the midst of a crazy shift and six-hour patient waiting times, I can easily forget that I signed up for this job. This forgetfulness can lead to extreme frustration, which only leads to a vicious cycle of being more and more short-fused and less appreciative of our jobs. I don't like these types of days, and I am grateful when I'm reminded that our jobs are not isolated in these frustrations.
A few years back, I was at a local store waiting in a very long cash-out line. It seems that several cashiers had called in sick and the store was trying to cope as best as they could. I picked the shortest of the waiting lines and still was about eight customers back.
I clearly remember the grumbling. It seems that everyone had an opinion of either how to make things go quicker or shared their thoughts they they would never return to this particular store again. How dare them make us wait like this? What were we, cattle or something? I smiled, correlating this to how our ER waiting room mood must be on those hectic days.
Slowly, but steadily, my line advanced to where I was next, following a gentleman who wore an armed-service ball cap. He had grumbled along with everyone else and, by the look on his face, was tired of the waiting. He placed his merchandise on the counter as the cashier greeted him.
"Hello, sir," she said, with a warm smile, "I'm sorry about your long wait. Did you find everything you were looking for?" Her pleasantness, apparently, remained unscathed.
The gentleman ignored her as he pulled out his wallet and a few bills. The cashier, her hair mussed and her make-up long past the point of retouch, was not to be deterred. She continued scanning his merchandise while she spoke. "Oh my, is that your hat, sir?" she asked, pointing to his cap. "I see it states that you are a veteran of the Army."
He touched the brim of his hat as he sized her up, finally returning her smile. "Well, yes, I was in the Army during the Korean War."
"Well, then," she said, now pausing and giving him her undivided attention, "I would like to thank you for your service to our country."
Hey, wait a second here! I had just witnessed something pretty special and neat. I was so caught-off guard and pleased by this cashier's actions that I could only imagine how this gentleman now felt. In fact, he was a completely different fellow after that--talking and joking around until she finished cashing him out.
I was next. "I have to tell you," I said to her after her kind greeting, "that how you handled that gentleman was great. You made his day with your kind words."
"Thank you, but I really do mean it. My grandfather and my father were both in the Army, and my brother is in Iraq right now. I can't even imagine what it would be like to go to war, you know?" She went on to tell me that every customer who goes through her line wearing some form of armed-service clothing gets a "thank you" from her.
She was an inspiration. Despite everything falling apart around her, she never once thought to be huffy or rude and, more so, was handing out compliments and immersing her customers in kindness. She demonstrated that grace-under-fire is not a lost art. If I could, I would have offered her a job in our ER. And lots and lots of money.
Several weeks after this, my wife, my kids and I drove a few hours to a nearby city's zoo, much larger than our local one. We were having a perfect zoo-kind-of-day, sunny and warm, with all the animals out and about within their exhibits. As we were walking down a paved, gently-sloping pathway, away from the exhibits of pacing polar and grizzly bears, we approached a gentleman in a wheelchair, coming from the opposite direction. He had bilateral below-the-knee amputations and was being pushed by what looked to be an adult grandchild. The man was wearing a matching t-shirt and baseball cap.
They read "United States Army."
As we were about to pass him, I stopped and looked at the both of them. "Excuse me," I asked, "but do you need any help pushing your wheelchair up the hill?"
"Why, no," the man in the wheelchair answered, his grandson nodding his agreement, "but thank you for asking. He looked at my children, who had halted by my side, and gave them a crooked, toothy, friendly smile.
I have to admit, I was nervous about what I said next. "Sir," I said, focusing on his clear brown eyes, "I can't help but notice your shirt and cap. Did you serve in the Army?" Was it any of my business?
He didn't seem to mind my question, although he did seem surprised that I had noticed. "Yes," he answered, "that's where I lost both of these." He nodded his attention to his partial legs before clasping his hands to his denim-covered knees. "Lost 'em in Vietnam when I was 24."
"Well, sir," I said, taking a note from the department store cashier, "I thank you for your service to our country. Because of you, my family knows what freedom is." I held out my hand and he took it, shaking it vigorously. I shook his grandson's hand next, and then we parted.
Walking away, I turned back for one last look at an everyday hero, a war veteran. Lucky for me, he was doing the same. Our eyes met. I'm not sure what he read in mine, but I saw the gratefulness emanating from his. I smiled before turning back to my family.
My kids, ages nine, seven, and five at the time, were completely mesmerized. "Daddy," they asked, "did you know that man? And what happened to his legs?" No, I didn't know him, I answered them, before trying my best to explain how he had lost his legs, fighting for our country and defending our freedom.
After my wife and I answered our kids' questions the best we could, we continued on with our day, enveloped in our freedom, each of us walking on two good legs. My family on the paved path, me on a cloud. Man, did that interaction feel good!
As a result of the appreciative cashier, I try to greet every ER patient who has served in the armed forces with a heartfelt thanks. Try it sometime...it will make their day. And yours, too.
To think, this happened only because some cashier, during a busy, hurried moment, was able to remember the more important things in life. She made a difference. And I was there to witness it.
And as always, big thanks for reading. Next post will be Monday, March 8. See you then...