To the Nurse Who Asked, ‘What Happened to Her Face?’


Dear nurse who thought I was sleeping,

“What happened to her face?” I heard you ask — and not in a friendly tone.

Still groggy after the procedure to help with my neck pain (I was in a car accident two years ago), I briefly opened my eyes. I was still in the procedure room and your team had just adjusted me from my stomach and returned me to rest on my back. The anesthesia I’d been under was wearing off in a record time.

Closing my eyes, I thought, “Did I just dream the nurse’s question? I must have.” But it my gut, I knew it hadn’t been a dream. As I woke up, I became more confident in what I heard you say, and it made me feel terrible. One of the anesthesiologists who was also in the room confirmed I heard her correctly.

“Oh,” I told him, “you can tell her it’s just a birthmark. I don’t mind people knowing what it is. I actually write about my birthmark and story on my blog, and I’m a public speaker on the issue.”

My heart felt heavy. I felt frustrated. I was hurt. I was tired.

Today, a week later, I finally talked directly to your manager. I told her I was hurt and frustrated, and I was there for my neck not my face. Your words, and the attitude in your tone, were not the first things I wanted to hear after a painful procedure. In fact, that’s the last thing I wanted to hear. She understood and was equally disappointed in the situation.

She explained to me that when I entered the room to have my procedure, I had one nurse I met beforehand. When the procedure was finished and I was prepping to leave the room, I had a different nurse due to a shift change. I had you. You had no way to know when they turned me from my stomach and onto my back, my face wouldn’t be the norm. You didn’t see much about my file beforehand, nor were you informed about any medical conditions that I have. You went in blind, without any “warning” about my face.

I’m guessing you probably thought I was still asleep. You probably thought I wouldn’t hear your words, I wouldn’t remember them. But I was awake. I do remember.

It’s possible you meant your question, “What happened to her face?” to translate to, “Is she OK? Is she having some kind of reaction?” But it didn’t. Not with your choice of words and the tone of your voice. Instead, it translated to an unprofessional, careless attitude and sounded as though you were just being nosey.

You’re not the only one to choose the wrong words on occasion. I’ve been asked if my birthmark was face paint and an allergic reaction to the flu shot. During one hospitalization, another nurse (while I was awake) rudely asked my attending nurse, “What happened to her face?!” When I started to react, she pretended like I wasn’t awake and sitting in front of her when she continued to ask my attending nurse, “Oh, is it something she’s had for a while?” She never addressed me. She never talked to me. I was invisible.

A few weeks later, during a time when I was incredibly sick, a receptionist recommended I switch makeup brands so I can hide my birthmark better since “it probably bothers other people more than it bothers you.”

That’s just in hospital settings alone. I’m excluding experiences at the dentist’s office, at college, online, and when I’m out with friends. Knowing the words that have been said about me and to me while awake, I don’t want to know what may be said about me behind closed doors — or when I’m asleep having my gallbladder removed or during a third ankle surgery.

Your words hurt, but they inspired me. That’s why you’ll probably see me again in your department in the weeks to come. This time, I’ll be there for a different reason: To talk about my story, to explain situations I’ve been in and why my experiences are not OK and why. I’ll be teaching you and your coworkers better responses and friendlier ways to address certain issues. I’ll also be reminding you I’m more than just another patient, I’m also human — just like you. And just like you, I have a story. I have feelings. I’m more then whatever “happened to” my face.

Please know, though, I won’t single you out. In fact, I don’t even remember who you are. Although I blog about my experiences, I probably wouldn’t be able to recognize the people who created the experiences. I strive to remember the situations, the stories, the quotes — but work equally as hard to forget who said it. Who said it doesn’t matter, what was said does. Your ability to grow and learn matters even more.

You’re not the first person to say hurtful words. You’re not the last. But you can learn. I can’t change my appearance, but you can change the way you handle situations, your attitude, and the words you choose. You can remember all your patients are more than just an ID number waiting to be “serviced.” You can remember patients aren’t always asleep, regardless if their eyes are closed.

crystal hodges

A version of this post originally appeared on The Travelin’ Chick.

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