As I lay bleeding

(The following guest blog was originally published April 20, 2010 by the Alberta Teacher’s Association.)

An educator’s reflections on our healthcare system

Dennis Theobald

Recently, I had an opportunity to become more closely acquainted with Alberta’s healthcare system than I would have liked. But spending a week on my back in a hospital bed with various tubes ­running in and out of me provided a wonderful, if unwelcomed, opportunity to observe through the eyes of a teacher the work of the men and women employed by Alberta’s largest public service organization, Alberta Health Services.

Alberta Health Services is a behemoth. Employing over 85,000 people in some 400 facilities around the province, its annual budget is in excess of $10 billion. When I showed up in the emergency department of my local hospital, I was just one of 1.9 million patients who present themselves seeking emergency treatment in the course of a year. Though our education system is big, the healthcare system is bigger—much bigger, but the two systems have this much in common: both are fundamentally complex and both deal with people, who have a complexity all their own.

Complexity is a characteristic of both the structure of an organization and the functions it performs. The hospital where I was treated employs over 1,000 people in a variety of different roles, all dedicated to treating patients like me. Those administrators, physicians, nurses, aides, technicians, custodial and support staff must coordinate their knowledge, skills and resources to deal not just with the physiological systems that gave rise to a medical condition, but with the living, breathing, sputtering, bleeding person in front of them who quite literally embodies that condition. Although the organizational complexity of a school may not approach that of a hospital, to properly meet the needs of their students, schools, too, need to bring together the talents of teachers, administrators, aides, support staff and, increasingly, external agencies. (In responding to this challenge, I’d also point out that schools, unlike hospitals, do not have the option of rendering their most troublesome clients unconscious.)

What makes complex systems such as these work, despite limited finances, increased expectations and changing technology, is human intelligence, resourcefulness, professionalism and genuine concern. During my hospital stay, I saw these things in abundance. At every point, and this is not an observation born of some morphine-induced bonhomie, I was treated quickly, competently, respectfully and compassionately by caring men and women. This, I like to believe, is also the experience of the vast majority of students and parents who are served by our schools. There is a reason why teaching, nursing, medicine and social work and others are referred to as the caring professions.

One unique advantage that schools enjoy over hospitals is that the work that teachers and their colleagues do in school enhances the ­value of an appreciating asset—our students. Despite the heroic ­efforts of our healthcare system, I’m afraid that, like the rest of us, I’m a steadily depreciating physical asset bound ultimately for our common end.

I want to express my appreciation to ATA President Carol ­Henderson and my colleagues who ably filled this space in my ­absence (although I’m not quite over the notion that I can be so ­easily replaced). I also appreciate the kind thoughts that many of you ­expressed to me in notes and e-mails.

I welcome your comments—contact me at dennis.theobald@ata.ab.ca.