I was working late this week; making patient call backs, filling prescriptions, reviewing labs and finishing charts from the day. It was dark out and the medical office was quiet and empty. The janitorial crew started their work of emptying trash, picking up the scattered debris from the busy patient flow and sanitizing surfaces. I looked up and a beautiful Latin woman, age about 30, wearing latex gloves, was emptying the overflowing trash can.
"You are working overtime," she said with a heavy Hispanic accent. I laughed, realizing how late it was and how tired I was and still had more work to do. Then I stopped and really looked at her. She was busy putting liners in cans and dusting surfaces. She was working fast because there were many other offices ahead of her that also needed cleaning.
"You are working overtime too," I said. "Yes," she replied, "I will work until 12:30." (That's AM.)
"I bet this is a second job for you," I guessed, and she replied "Si, I will go to my job at the food court in the morning".
"Thank you for what you do here," I said. "Without the work you do at night we could not take care of our patients. Coming to work and seeing everything so spotless lets us take care of people so I thank you."
I have thought about this short interpersonal connection many times and how important it is to stop and really look at another person. I had been feeling "put-upon" with my workload, which was nothing compared to the work this young woman had in front of her. In our society a minimum wage job is not enough to live. People need two back to back jobs to survive. Yet she was working with grace and dignity and without complaint. In fact she was noticing that I was there late. Amazing!
Taking the time to realize that others are facing challenges in their lives and learning from the grace they bring to life is an important touchstone for grounding us in our work.
This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.