Please Don't Treat Me Like I Lack Brain Cells

In case you missed it, check out Part 1 of this series!

The adage that “the customer is always right” may not always be true, but it is so much a part of our lexicon that I never stopped to think where it came from. But for some reason – tied into a rude check-in guy at my cancer hospital – I traced it to its origin. In a bit, I’ll talk about why the consumer of cancer services may not always be right but should be given the benefit of the doubt.

"The customer is always right"

During my early newspaper reporting days, I either had to walk to the city library to look something up on microfilm or ask the newspaper librarian to find it if it was local. (For some reason we called it “the morgue,” and it wasn’t always easy because the librarian filed almost everything under P, for “proposed”.) Now it is almost too easy to look something up.

In any case, I looked up “the customer is always right” and found, in an interesting story in Forbes, and another in a site called The Phrase Finder, that several retailers began using it in the early 1900s at a time when clerks, and brands, treated customers “like the lacked brain cells,” according to the Forbes article. “The customer is always right is a phrase pioneered by Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field,” according to the Forbes article, which continues, “Selfridge, who founded the department store Selfridges in the U.K.; Wanamaker, who opened the first department store in Philadelphia; and Marshall Field, owner of the store Marshall Field and Company in Chicago, owe much of their careers to respecting customers.”1

We are not customers, we are consumers

Well, when we go to our cancer centers, we are not customers, but we are consumers. We don’t always think of it this way, but we are indeed paying for a service. As I wrote in Part One, on the day of my recent checkup, I had a lot going on. A check-in guy did not give me that respect that the retailers spoke of. It was a kind of “last straw” feeling, the thing that can be little but still make your blood pressure soar.

Here's what happened. I made a friend coming up from the first floor after handing my car over to the valet. We went through COVID screening and then went up to the second floor. We got in line together to check in and then sat down in the waiting room for a blood draw. We settled into adjacent chairs and each gave a quick synopsis. (She was being treated for breast cancer.)

Then I realized we didn’t have the white wristband with our patient ID and information. She said she would go back to get hers. I said I would tell the phlebotomist that she would be right back if called. She returned quickly with her wristband and said it was easy. When I went back next, the woman who had checked us in wasn’t at her window. So I told the adjacent guy what happened and asked if a could get a band.

Little things have big impact in a cancer center

“You must have just come up from the first floor,” he barked. This implied that I didn’t have the brain cells to know where I had come from – the second floor waiting room and not the first floor – and that maybe I was a child lost in one of Marshall Fields’ department stores.

“No, I was already up here,” I said. He shook his head and motioned me to the back of the line. (No I was not trying to jump the line. He could have easily handed me the wristband.)

When I got to the front of the line (again) so I could get my wristband, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. Was this the end of the world? Of course not. Tears were out of proportion to the insult. But it shows that every little thing affects your state of mind at a cancer center.

Eye on the ball

When I went back to my chair, my new friend gave me a hug. Things got better. The phlebotomist was very kind. She gave me a package of tissues. On my way out, I asked for the rude guy’s name. Later I told my nurse practitioner. She said it stood out because everyone was always so nice. She said she knew it was hard. It was my first time back in the building after my doctor died. And even though I feel good, having a check-up after a long gap is stressful.

The main thing is that my counts (short for blood counts) were good.

As we say in tennis, eye on the ball.

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