By Alex Cornacchia, Contributing Writer
Northborough – Dr. John Zawacki’s first patient Feb. 18 was a 50-year-old woman with long brown hair, a thick Boston accent, and approximately one million questions. Heartburn and bloating were the symptoms that had brought her in to UMass Memorial Medical Center that day, but her inquiries ranged from cancer to mint toothpaste to which liquid for colonoscopy prep tasted best. She was anxious, toying with her hand-knit scarf as she spoke. She wanted to make sure she asked everything.
The reality of clinic hours meant that Zawacki only had five minutes with this patient, time she was quickly eating up with her barrage of questions. But if Zawacki was concerned about the numbers on the clock, he didn’t betray any sign of it. Instead he leaned forward, and listened.
At a glance, hospitals don’t always seem like the best places to find compassion. They’re noisy, bright and fast-paced; their halls are populated by sick people and sleepless staff; the potential for wrong turns down never-ending corridors is high. There are long waits followed by rushed appointments followed by confusion about diagnoses and prognoses and how to get back to the parking garage once it’s over. There’s just not a lot of time for compassion in there.
Zawacki knows this, which is part of the reason he won the 2012 Schwartz Center’s Compassionate Caregiver Award. He’s a gastroenterologist who’s been practicing medicine for over 30 years, though he’s been seeing patients even longer. Growing up, his father worked days at a psychiatric hospital and spent evenings running a private practice out of his own home. Zawacki still recalls passing by his dad’s patients in the hall, wishing them goodnight before going up to bed.
His father taught him many lessons in those years about what it meant to be a good caregiver. He learned that treating patients with respect was top priority, that even if he was the one wearing the white coat, it didn’t make him better than anyone else.
Zawacki’s second patient was a black woman in her 30s who spoke only Spanish, necessitating a translator to mediate their conversation over speakerphone. Zawacki pulled his chair close as he asked about the patient’s abdominal pain, maintaining eye contact through the long process of having questions translated and answers relayed back. Explaining the preliminary diagnosis was a delicate dance of diagrams, hand motions, and quick-flying words. When he was done, the woman nodded, grasping Zawacki’s hand as she thanked him. She understood.
The five-minute appointments weren’t always the norm for Zawacki, but because he’s in partial retirement he only comes in twice a week for clinic hours. He acknowledges that there’s a loss – that trying to connect with patients in just a few minutes is challenging. But it’s not impossible. Compassion can be found in moments – cracking a joke, a smile, or just making it clear that he’s there and he’s listening.