Digital & Social Media

What’s Said Isn’t Always What’s Heard


There are few service professions that are nobler than nursing. My mother was a nurse before raising her seven children, and the stories she told were testaments to the most charitable and generous aspects of human nature.

So I can understand why one healthcare company is running a series of advertisements to honor nurses. They deserve our praise and admiration. Yet, despite good intentions, the way the company has chosen to deliver the message in one such tribute may not, in fact, end up communicating what the advertiser was hoping to say—at least it didn’t for me.
Speaking True 11012013
Here’s the plot of the commercial: A nurse is caring for a very old and frail woman named Berta Olson. This is evidently a hospice situation involving end-of-life care. Berta is in a nightgown, dependent upon oxygen, and is shown spending her day rotating from her bed, to a chair by the window, and likely to the restroom, all in a small apartment. This is her life. A nurse gingerly feeds Berta, and otherwise compassionately tends to her needs.

The nurse’s voice becomes the narrator: “One night, Berta told me about an old Danish folktale that says it’s important to keep open a window, so that a person’s spirit can leave the room when they die.”

A camera catches an open window from below and shows the window being shut. The nurse then says dramatically and meaningfully, “Not tonight, Berta. Not tonight.”

It made me wonder what Berta was really trying to say. Was the folktale she told an innocent remembrance of her youth? Or was she revealing a deeper wish, to let go, to “be free of this mortal coil,” as Shakespeare once wrote?

Some could interpret the nurse’s message to be: “It’s my job to keep you alive. Your spirit is not flying out the window tonight. Not on my watch.” I thought about the power the nurse had over Berta, fueled by her sincerity and commitment and sense of duty.

Of course, the nurse had no choice. We’re not about to lionize anything but life-saving techniques. Yet, I found myself feeling a bit sad for Berta.

As a communicator, I wondered if the healthcare company was aware of the other side of the question, that a listener could interpret Berta’s story as a wish…a wish to end her fatigue and fear and perhaps discomfort. Instead, we get a closed window.

No one needs to hasten Berta’s death, but perhaps we could have given her a bit of happiness and, maybe, hope, by opening the window. It’s a small thing.

Was anyone really listening to Berta?

When it’s my time, and when I ask, please open the window.