on hecklers…


Folks, I’ve been humbled again.   Feeling confident that you have everything figured out? Life has a way of unexpectedly knocking you off your pedestal.

I’ve been heckled three times in my speaking career. Once was in 1995 when I was working for the Alberta Health and presenting a new funding formula to a physician group in Lethbridge. The doctors were very angry about the new formula. I remember telling my co-presenter afterwards – gosh, I wish you had thrown your coat over me and escorted me off the stage. It was that bad.

The second time was about ten years ago. Another mom and I were presenting to genetics clinic staff about the value of peer support for parents who have a baby or baby-to-be with a new diagnosis of Down syndrome. We were showing photos of our kids, who were 3 and 6 at the time.

A geneticist got up in the back of the room and said, “what happens when your kids aren’t so cute anymore?” Both us speakers stood there, frozen and horrified. This was a man who disclosed prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome to families. Afterwards, how I wish I had retorted: “what happened to you when you weren’t so cute anymore?” But alas, I don’t think very quickly on my feet.

The third time I was heckled was this morning. I flew to Edmonton to speak at an Emergency Department conference. My messages were about kindness and compassion in health care, and how the little things mean a lot to patients and families.

The stop sign above was part of my ‘Seven things that mean a lot to patients’ theme. I talked about the stress of finding parking, and the anxiety associated with the Emergency waiting room, and this big stop sign that awaits patients when they first walk in the door. I asked – why not try to provide a little comfort to patients so they aren’t so stressed out and angry when they arrive? Less agitated patients would help health professionals too.  Why not show a ‘welcome’ sign in a few different languages instead?

My heckler took great issue with my thoughts on the stop sign. He felt that patients should be told to stop and wash their hands and that patients thought that the ‘H’ on hospital meant hotel, and how he didn’t have time for that.

He went on and on about how awful patients were and now it is all a blur to me as I stood there swallowing back my tears. Other people chimed in about how demanding patients were, and I realized, in horror, how awful the Emergency experience must be here in Alberta for both patients and staff. One nurse actually said: I treat patients the way they treat me. If they are mean to me, I’m mean right back.

I had no response to this welling hostility. I needed someone to throw a coat over my head and escort me off the stage, but nobody did. Finally a young nurse put up her hand and was handed the microphone: “Thank you for your talk, she said quietly. I learned some things that I could do better at work. I’m going to try to slow down and not rush so much.” Thank you I croaked out to her, grateful for her bravery to speak up.

Gosh, there are so many lessons here.

  1. Patient speakers are sharing their stories and allowing themselves to be very vulnerable. Audience members, please respect that. Patient speakers, please protect your hearts and be aware that things can go sideways. I had obviously forgotten that – the aggression that came at me felt like a slap.
  1. Patient speakers, not everybody will agree with your message, and that’s ok. Let’s take this as a learning opportunity. At least I sparked dialogue, right? Right?
  1. Organizers, please assess your audience carefully. If your audience is hostile to hearing the patient experience, perhaps consider waiting to invite a speaker until the environment is less adversarial.

The fact is when I stand on a stage behind a microphone, I should accept the risk that comes along with that. (Why do you think that rational people shy away from public speaking?!). Maybe I have been given a free pass up until now because I generally talk to engaged audiences who are open to hearing about love and compassion. I’ve spoken at least 50 times since I’ve begun this work – so two hecklers out of 50 isn’t that bad.

I’m going to take a little rest now from trying to change the world, and focus on what’s important: the people I love.  I’ll be on a speaking hiatus until further notice.


16 thoughts on “on hecklers…

  1. amw (@anothermikew) says:

    Hecklers reveal more about themselves in both the style and substance of their comments. This guy revealed that he hates his work, his clients (patients), his employer — and that he’s an asshole. He should probably consider working in surgery (where patients are asleep) or perhaps get retrained in a field where people are not involved at all. His patients would be far better off!

  2. sue robins says:

    I think the saddest thing is the distain this nurse has for the people he’s supposed to be caring for. If I had been quicker in my response, instead of standing there like a damn fool, I would have gently suggested that perhaps if he dislikes patients so very much that he should find another profession. The other sad thing was that there were others nodding in agreement with him. It makes me sad for the state of the health system in Alberta.

    Also, another lesson learned: do not walk into unsafe speaking situations with your patient stories – I did meet with the organizer, and took his direction as far as content….but this audience was just not ready to hear the patient perspective. I’m learning the hard way.

  3. Katharina Staub says:

    I’m very sorry you had to experience this. Remember though, it is not a reflection of you nor the excellent work you do. The response of this nurse is troubling in many ways but it has nothing to do with you. I have found that the patient’s point of view is not relevant to some HCPs, especially in out patient clinics when it comes to wait times, unavailability to get a hold of specialists or their assistants, phrases such as: you should be thankful you got an appointment-3 hrs wait times are normal.. No wonder I break out in a sweat when I walk past the Emergency Departments…

    Nobody goes there for fun, I can’t believe the nurse used the term “hotel”. The ED may at times be the place where some of the woes in our society show up for lack of better resources available for some people, it still makes every patient human with a unique and individual story. I for one look forward to reading and hearing from you again soon!

  4. Kate says:

    SUE. This is horrible. I would have reacted in exactly the same way you did (unless I’d had the foresight to bring a flamethrower). Will think more on this but just wanted to say I adore you …

  5. Donald Lepp says:

    Hello Sue,

    First… thanks for the work that you do and have done. You’ve definitely blazed a trail for some of us who are involved with the Stollery FCC.
    I have also had several opportunities to be able to share our family’s story with the hope have providing motivation for change in the health care system.
    I have been fortunate that I have never been directly heckled. I routine get into debates on issues related to health care issues… usually with political types who have political rhetoric memorized. It doesn’t end well for them when they realize I’m speaking from personal experience and they are speaking from “something they read somewhere”. That usually ends the conversation. I must admit that being verbally attacked by a health care professional crosses a line. Your experience is your experience. You can’t debate that.
    One of the things I wonder about when I speak is anyone really understanding what I’m telling them. I am able to tell a compelling story… and I can make the Kleenexes come out but am I really getting through to anyone how important these issues are to families. One of the problems with most of the groups I speak to is that most of the audience are there because they want to be there. I am preaching to the choir. I wonder if that isn’t the next frontier for family centred care. TO start talking to the people who openly resist and oppose putting the patients first and couldn’t be bothered to consider what a family’s need might be. I know it isn’t easy to be in an adversarial environment but perhaps that is something that is inevitable. I guess when you go into a potentially hostile environment you have to go in expecting the best but prepared for the worst.

  6. sue robins says:

    Thank you Katharina, Kate & Donald for your words. I’m thinking about what I could have done differently. I don’t think I ‘screened’ this conference well. I made some assumptions: because I gave a similar talk the year before to the Western Emergency Department Operations (WEDOC) conference, and it went very well, I had assumed that this was a similar audience with similar readiness to hear a talk about patient experience. I did meet with the organizer in person and went over my content, and he assured me that was what they wanted for this audience. But I remember he said: they NEED to hear this…which is quite a bit ready than they are OPEN to hearing this. This group was mostly ‘front line’ health care providers who obviously had many challenges working with patients. Were they at a place where they were open to knowledge from a patient point of view? No. I’m not even sure they were aware or desired such knowledge at all. Hence my epic failure.

    To Donald’s point, YES I agree that there are many that NEED to hear our message…and there are likely patient speakers who are stronger than I who can give that message to an adversarial audience! My guilt in sharing Aaron’s story and pictures with this group is very overwhelming…I’d suggest that if one is brave enough to tackle these groups…that keeping things more generic and less personal might be a way to temper the vulnerability piece. I really feel as if I betrayed Aaron at that conference…and I am going to think very very carefully about using his photos/stories ever again.

    Whew, long comment! Still licking my wounds…

  7. Donald Lepp says:

    Our strength are our “personal” stories. Never apologize for that. Yes…when you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable you do take a risk. The fact that someone was “disgruntled” enough to heckle you…probably means you were hitting a nerve. Good on you for doing that. The impact of that encounter may pay dividends down the road. You never know what impact you had.

    I have never been openly heckled (have no idea how i would respond to it). I”ve had a few jabs via social media but I do comment on political issues as well; so if i go down that road i have to expect that. I have had a couple of strange experiences where I think people have tried to marginalize my story by sharing there own. That was odd because I felt our message was the same but this person felt the need to one-up me. I really encourage others to share their experiences because they are so valuable for providing clarity. Everyone’s experience is unique and provides a different perspective. They are all valuable.

    If this kind of thing ever happens again. Feel free to vent here. ALL THE BEST!!!!

  8. lisawensink says:

    Emergency room staff can be challenging, though I hate to think that someone disliked their work so much to say this kind of thing in this kind of manner. I also hate to say that I am not entirely surprised.

    I’ve heard people talk like this, in health care, and I remember talking with a group of nurses about how to defuse potentially angry or violent patients, and one ended up getting up and leaving after saying something similar to your heckler.
    I think the important thing for me was to remember that there were other people there who appreciated what I had to say and agreed that being kind, listening, and taking time was much more effective than being reactionary.

    I think if there were people who got something from what you said, it was worth it, and I would bet that there were people in the audience silently agreeing with you and they might feel more confident in doing good work because of what you said.

    It is brave to stand up and speak about what is important and right, even if it is not popular and it is one more step in changing the enormous health care system with its ingrained culture of believing health care providers are experts in everything.

  9. lisawensink says:

    Also those stupid stop signs are everywhere here, but they say something like ‘Violence will not be tolerated…blah, blah, blah.’ I try to bring up every time I can that people who are angry and potentially violent don’t stop and say, ‘wait, I won’t hit someone, look at the sign’ but they very easily could inspire fear and anxiety in the 99.9% of people who are there to get some help. We hid ours on our unit in a spot that patients and families wouldn’t notice it because it was mandated by various provincial people (union? Worksafe?) that it be posted.

    Also, I didn’t mean that being heckled is worth it if people were inspired by your speech, but rather that speaking in general about these important issues is worth it 🙂

  10. sue robins says:

    Thank you, Lisa. ED staff ARE a tough crowd…but what a difference from the group I spoke to last year, which was more of a management/admin/physician crowd. On thursday, I think I was a composite of every single patient that was unkind to these nurses…which isn’t ok either…but my goodness, talk about shooting the messenger. Lisa, I know for a fact that you are an awesome nurse…Kelowna is very lucky to have you.

    Thank you to Donald too. You are giving me a lot to think about the important work that we are all doing. I won’t give up. (Although I might take a little break to recover. 😉

  11. Laurina Panas says:

    Good morning Sue. I just wanted to say that I’m so very sorry for the experience that you had. Just reading your post brought tears to my eyes. I have had the pleasure of attending one of your presentations a few years ago, and it was wonderful. I have also had the pleasure of attending many of your small group sessions. I have always thought that you represented patients and families with the utmost of respect and integrity. Your message always is that of hope and improvement, on both sides. It’s troubling to hear of the arrogant, ignorant, disrespectful, hurtful comments that have come from health care providers. I felt very disheartened after reading your post. I’m just so very sorry that you had to endure that kind of interaction. Your words deserve thoughtful, compassionate, kind, encouraging listeners. I will be thinking of you and I wish you a wonderful summer with your lovely family. You’re doing good work Sue – never doubt that. Take care, Laurina.

  12. sue robins says:

    Laurina, thank you for the heartfelt and awesome comment. I so appreciate your positive feedback for me – it helps me continue on this important work. I ironically saw that the ‘patients first’ strategy was released at AHS today – so glad this is a priority for AHS but from my sad experience, there’s a long way to go with some front-line staff. Let’s not give up!

  13. Jennifer R says:

    Hi Sue
    So sorry to hear of your expereince and how sad for the staff that they appear to be so frustrated that they have no capacity for empathy or compassion.

    I hope your own compassion and wisdom will allow you to recover from this experience.
    You continue to be amazing Sue and have much to share with the world .

  14. sue robins says:

    Ah, Jennifer – so nice to hear from you – you are one of the original champions of this important work! Thank you for continuing to support patients and families to tell their stories…despite setbacks, let’s keep chipping away at change in this (damn) world! I remember your guidance and kind support before I presented in Australia – I will never forget the time you took out of your busy schedule to meet with a mom. Let’s all carry on!

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