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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.