Who Will Help You When You Need Someone the Most?

July 24, 2013 in Analysis & Editorial

Barbara DeVoe

Barbara DeVoe explains a procedure to a group. Source: PULSE of NY.

by Ilene Corina

When I stood at the door of a patient’s room while the nurse treated him following his surgery, I knew my primary job was to keep curious, insensitive or untrained staff from coming into the room. The staff knew they couldn’t get by me because as a patient safety advocate, my job is to keep the patient safe and treated respectfully.

At this hospital, a man having a hysterectomy was understandably a curiosity, but no one is permitted in a patient’s room without first introducing themselves and stating why they are there. This is just one of the rules I help people learn when they too want to be an advocate for a friend or family member.

When staff came in, they would ask me, “Do I refer to the patient as a he or she?”

I would gently respond, “The patient is a man,” and thank them for asking.

As an advocate for people with many special needs, disabilities, mental illness, teen moms and the transgender community, I learn from the patients what will help keep them feeling safe when hospitalized. At the Long Island Patient Safety Advisory Council, we meet with representatives of these groups to help them understand their roles as patients and how best to get safe care.

A patient who is sick or injured and feeling vulnerable isn’t always in a position to speak up or speak out. What can the family or friends do to help a patient feel safe and stay safe? Safety in healthcare is usually about the numbers of hospital-acquired infections or the many medication errors happening each day. Falls can cause additional days in the hospital.

Another safety issue is recognizing the needs of our most vulnerable populations: teen mothers are often loud and outspoken because they fear intimidation and have spent years not being heard. A person confined to a wheelchair fears that the wheelchair or walker might disappear. A transgender woman may fear being called by her given name, embarrassed to go into a doctor’s office.

A recent training session with HIV/AIDS patients helped me learn the importance of preventing their exposure to anyone sick — and that means hospital staff too. But how does a patient who may be injured or in pain, and who may have been ridiculed or misunderstood their whole life, now suggest that a clinician not cough near them? They shouldn’t have to. We should be doing it for them.

Ideally, we should each look around and think about who might be our advocate: someone to speak up for our needs and make us feel safe.

Find your advocate today.


Ilene Corina is the president of PULSE of NY, a community based, Long Island, New York, non-profit patient safety organization founded in 1996. Corina teaches public patient advocacy skills and is a national speaker on patient safety.  Following the death of her son from a preventable medical error, she learned what she could about patient’s safety. Now she is a board member of The Joint Commission, the National Patient Safety Foundation and the American College of OBGYN Patient Safety on Women’s Health, among other organizations.