I completed cardiac rehab at the end of December. In the process of thanking the staff for their excellent care, I took a moment to reflect on the experience and the lessons that I had learned.

As I went through the cardiac rehab process, each time I went into the hospital, I had to put on a monitor so that my heart rate could be watched by the attendant at the desk. The process of getting myself hooked up required placing sensors connected to wires on the four sides of my chest. These each had to be placed correctly according to the color of the lead. The first few times I did it, I found the process to be quite baffling.

The nurse who checked me in on my first visit walked me through the process of hooking up the leads and getting them all in the correct place. This is the last step of a 45-minute check-in process. And since it had only been about a month since my surgery, my mind was still not functioning particularly well.

As a result, on my subsequent visits, trying to remember how I was told to hook up the monitor was a challenge. On my second visit to rehab, I struggled as I tried to put the color-coded leads where they belonged. I also became frustrated because I could not keep the monitor steady in the pouch that holds it in the right place. Seeing my frustration, Nurse Becky came to help me.

My initial reaction to her was not positive. She had a firm look in her eye and a set jaw that suggested that it was either her way or the highway. Without directly saying so, she gave me the impression that the method I had been taught by the other nurse during the intake process was not the best way. My immediate reaction was to think that I really did not like this opinionated nurse.

As my wife is fond of saying, “Everyone has a story.” The persona people project often does not match the real person. We meet people in everyday life and have an instant reaction to them. Without trying to, we tend to judge people who look a bit different or whose verbal tone catches us in the wrong way.

As I progressed through rehab during the weeks that followed, I would learn to view Becky in a very different light.

The first step in the process that I went through was to understand that – compared to some of the other instructions I received – her techniques for the hook-up process worked very well. Over time I learned that she had developed a system that even a mechanically reclined individual like me could follow. The fact was that her process was better than the one that I had initially been taught.

The turning point for our relationship was shortly before Thanksgiving. While she was taking my blood pressure before I exercised, I asked her if she had plans for Thanksgiving. She replied that she did not because her son was in the hospital fighting cancer. I told her that I would pray for her son.

The week after Thanksgiving, I asked her how her son was doing. She responded that he was not doing well. I said that it must be really tough on her and her husband. She replied that her husband had died about fifteen months ago. “He died and then I found out about three months later that my son had cancer.” She added that he was going through a new treatment and that he was feeling terrible. She also mentioned that the treatment was not working.

I felt awful. I said that I was sorry. She got a tear in her eye and said that life doesn’t always turn out the way you expected.

The following week she was again the nurse that was taking my blood pressure. She told me that this was her last day since she was going on medical leave. “I don’t want my son to be alone in the hospital. I am going to be with him as much as I can.” I looked her in the eye and told her that I would be praying for her son. And for her.

There is an old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” My experience with Becky illustrates this. Whether or not I ever see her again, I hope I never forget my experience of knowing her. When I first met her, I had a negative reaction to her. I was put off by her brusqueness and her somewhat abrasive manner.

But as the weeks went by, my view of her changed. I thought back to the first time she helped me. Was that the day that she found out that the treatment wasn’t working? That the last family she had was slipping away? Who was I to judge her without knowing her story?

This year, try not to judge or react to people based on their cover. As the story about Becky shows, we never know what issues people are dealing with beyond the mask that they wear in public.

In the last few weeks I have learned the positive impact of a friendly gesture or a kind word. Whether at the grocery store or the office, a kind word is usually well received.

I am not naïve enough to think that there are not people we encounter who are truly selfish and arrogant. But my sense is that these self-absorbed people are in the minority. Why make the majority – who are good people – pay for the arrogance of the few?

Instead of assuming the people you meet with an attitude really are that way, assume that each person has a story. Take a moment to meet them where they are, to greet them, and take an interest in them. If you ultimately find out that they think they are the center of the universe, at least you will have tried to open the book a bit before you judge the contents inside.
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