The Kindness of Strangers

Tucked away at the back of my sock drawer is an eye-mask that I never wear but will never get rid of. It was a gift from a stranger some years ago, during a particularly difficult hospital stay.

I’d been transferred to my local hospital after a month of tests on a specialist ward. The staff on the general ward knew very little about my disease. Most considered M.E. to be psychosomatic, some thought my symptoms must be faked and as a result I was treated very differently to their ‘genuine’ patients.

Medically speaking, there was nothing more they could do for me; I was waiting for Social Services to put a care plan in place and until they did I was blocking a bed on a busy ward. A quick read of my medical notes made it clear how little understanding the staff had of M.E. Instead of documenting seizures, migraines and vomiting, they wrote that I seemed ‘down’, ‘withdrawn’, and ‘unsociable’, ‘refusing’ to get out of bed and showing ‘signs of a possible eating disorder’.

At night when they thought that I must be asleep the nurses would discuss why a twenty-three year old would ‘claim’ to be bedridden and choose to use bedpans or have strangers bathe them. Medical and nursing students were told that M.E. was ‘just a form of depression’ and though I did what I could to correct this misinformation, my opinion counted for little against those of their mentors.

The bright, noisy ward was the total opposite of the dark, silent room that my symptoms demanded and I could only pray that Social Services would sort a care plan quickly so I could finally be discharged.

The ward housekeeper was an outspoken woman named Carol. Despite her diminutive size her voice could carry from several rooms away. She had worked at the hospital for twenty years, knew everyone who was anyone and didn’t suffer fools gladly. She would sweep around consultants while they broke bad news to patients and thought nothing of entering closed-curtained cubicles while their mortified occupants lay exposed on a bedpan.

She spent her breaks at the nurses’ station gossiping with staff, so I knew she had heard the things they were saying about me. She was very vocal in her opinions of health tourists, timewasters and hypochondriacs so I was in no doubt what sort of opinion she must have of me. She would loudly complain about the clutter in my cubicle caused by my inability to get out of bed and put things away properly. She would whistle as she cleaned, humming and jolting the bed with little regard for the fact that I was sick and in agony. The clatter of her broom against my bedframe felt like daggers in my brain and all I could do was grit my teeth and wait for the ordeal to be over.

A week into my stay, she seemed unusually subdued and instead of moving on when she’d finished my cubicle, she prodded my arm in order to wake me. Wondering what I could possibly have done to upset her, I stared up at her pinched face above me.

“Do you get headaches?” she asked abruptly.
I nodded warily.
“It’s-just-that-someone-said-you-get-migraines-and-my-husband-gets-migraines-and-they’re- horrible-things-so-I-made-you-this,” she blurted without pausing for breath and pressed something into my hand before blushing bright red as she scurried away.

It was an eye-mask hand-sewn from rough grey fabric. The elastic was too loose, the fabric too thin and the fibres too itchy to be of any use whatsoever but I clutched it in my hand all afternoon and cried at a kindness received from such an unexpected source.

I owned several other eye-masks that did the job much better but the very next day, when I heard Carol’s voice appoaching the ward I swapped my normal eye-mask for the one that she had made me. She didn’t say a word when she first saw me wearing it, but when she stopped to take her mid-morning break she poked me in the arm again to ask if she could sit with me.

“I don’t really understand what’s wrong with you,” she said, “but you’re young, and you don’t have many visitors, and it’s tough to be in hospital. I’ve heard some of the nurses say that there’s nothing really wrong with you; I don’t know if they’re right but I know migraines are real and I like to sew, so I chopped up a pair of my husband’s trousers to let you know that you’re not alone.”

From that moment onwards I opened my eyes and gave her my biggest smile every morning no matter how ill I felt or how much pain I was in.

When I reflect back over ten years of illness, the things that stand out are not the shattered dreams or the broken friendships but the unexpected acts of kindness, often from total strangers.

  • A patient I had never met bought a poinsettia for my room when she heard that I would be hospitalised for the whole of Christmas.
  • Another patient’s family did laundry for me when I was too far from home to rely on friends.
  • A support group sent a knitted bear made by a housebound teen who wanted it to go to ‘someone too ill to do anything more than hold on to a teddy’.

These are the things that stay with me; the things that keep me going when the going gets tough. In a materialistic and often selfish society it is heartening to know that there are still a great many good, kind, decent people left in the world. I only have to open my sock drawer to remember it.

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20 Responses to The Kindness of Strangers

  1. quiall says:

    these memories are life lines! Never forget. Thank you for sharing

  2. joyhselak says:

    This is just a beautiful essay and so rare to read of someone who sought out the silver linings and values their staying power. Thank you for writing this.
    JOY

  3. Miss Soul says:

    Beautiful story of the kindness of strangers. God bless you.

  4. Peter says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Sarah. . . .it made me think of a song we sang at our fellowship group this morning (with your Dad on guitar!) about loving as He loves, and wanting our hearts to be broken with the things that break His heart. I’ll try to be more on the lookout for chances to show small random acts of kindness, since, like you, I’m so grateful for people who have taken time to be kind to me.

  5. A beautiful post, and a great reminder to us all, its the simple things that matter. Helping someone across a street, smiling, being kind. None of it requiring wealth, only the time to be kind. Best wishes to you, I have missed your posts and every time I don’t see one, I wonder how rough your day has been. xx

  6. eleanorjanebirdy says:

    Tearing up a little reading this. How lovely that she made that gesture. I guess you contributed a bit to changing her mind just a bit about how real ME is and how it affects people.

  7. Beautiful story, thank you for sharing. I always try to do something kind for a stranger, no matter how bad I feel- even if it is just to smile, because I know how much those random acts of kindness can mean and you never know who needs that act of kindness.

  8. Curiosity says:

    The kindness is making me cry, and it wasn’t even directed at me. Good for them. Isn’t it amazing what a difference small gestures can make when you feel so alone and like others don’t recognize your illness.

  9. Bunny says:

    Aw, that brought a tear to my eye. I just love love love when people surprise you like that. Those encounters are so very precious and wonderful.

  10. What a wonderful post. I couldn’t read it all today, but I loved what I read. I totally can relate to your experience of not being believed. What are people thinking when they see people like us when they think we are choosing this as a way of life? I recall one time in the hallway of a medical building after leaving a horrid appointment with an ignorant doctor. I was crying and upset. Two or three people came up and said something or touched me gently. It was incredible to understand that some people do care. Thank you for sharing.

  11. RockinME says:

    Hi,
    I’ve never been to your blog before, and as I began reading this one, I started thinking, ‘I don’t want to continue reading this. I feel so awful right now and this isn’t making me feel any better… ‘ but I kept reading anyway, and I’m soooo glad I did! Wow. This was exactly what I needed to read right now. Like some other commenters confessed, I’m crying too – happy tears: for you, for me, for all of us.

    • I realised as I was writing the post that it wasn’t turning out to be the light hearted feel-good post I’d intended but I hope that the twist was waiting for. Glad you kept reading through the hard stuff and found what you needed.

  12. Zyp Czyk says:

    Just reading this made me cry. The phrase, “kindness of strangers”, resonates powerfully for me because I’ve realized how much I depend on it. It’s those little things, those small interactions, that let you know a person has empathy and understands your suffering even if they can’t understand the reason for it. When they are guided by their heart and not just their brain and are able to really “see” you, it’s so touching. It gives comforting because it validates our experience instead of denying and rejecting it.

    Plus, from a writer’s perspective, this is very well-written. You’ve managed to communicate exactly how you felt and induce that feeling in your readers. There are medical blogs looking for patient stories and this is one of the best I’ve read. Would you consider submitting it to KevinMD.com or occupyhealthcare.net? I’d be happy to help out.

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