David’s Story

As his father’s life nears its end, a VitalSmarts founder benefits from crucial conversations.

“It was 2 a.m. and my father was dying,” explains David Maxfield. “We had held onto the neurosurgeon’s optimism that he could ‘go in there and fix things in the morning,’ but now it was clear.”

David’s eighty-four-year-old father, John, had fallen again. Again he’d sustained brain injuries.

Notwithstanding, the attending surgeon believed surgery would prove successful. David, too, was hopeful. But as the evening wore on, John’s condition worsened. The nurses and other caregivers were doing their best to ease John’s pain, but due to the upcoming surgery they couldn’t administer the powerful narcotics he so needed. Their half-measures lasted minutes. John was clearly suffering.

“That’s when I decided to end it,” says David. “I asked the nurses to cancel the surgery, and to get my father out of pain.”

Sympathetic, the nurses hugged David then went to wake the resident physician. A few minutes later the resident physician arrived, quickly assessed John, and determined that indeed the operation should be cancelled. He told David he would call the surgeon and cancel.

After making the call, the resident physician returned, visibly deflated. He explained that the attending physician had refused to cancel the operation, and yet still forbade the more powerful pain medications, as they would interfere with the intended surgery.

David was nonplussed. He collected his thoughts and asked who could overrule the surgeon’s decision. He avoided hot words like “torture” and “cruel,” and reiterated his respect for the doctors and their profession. In minutes, the VP of nursing arrived, wearing his business suit. It must have been 3a.m. He did his own assessment of John, spoke with the nurses and resident physician, and then turned to David. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m going to call the attending physician and have a crucial conversation.”

Ten minutes later the surgery was canceled and John received the drugs he needed. His suffering ceased.

“I never got a chance to tell that VP that I knew what he meant by a ‘crucial conversation,’” David explains, “but his use of those skills in that moment helped my father in a way that’s beyond measure.” ◼

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the storyteller and do not reflect the view of VitalSmarts.

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