My beautiful son had surgery today.

For the sake of his privacy I won’t go into detail about what it was for. It wasn’t a major surgery, but he had to be put under. It was preventative – if we didn’t do it now, he would one day experience a pain like no other, one that would cause his brain to throw in the towel for a moment as he would pass out. Or the big C. Or both. Probably both.

We went to a good hospital. No. That’s modest. We went to one of the best children’s hospital in the country, a two hour trip from our home, staying in a hotel the night before. Our local hospitals are good. Our normal one is great. We wanted the best.

We have history… awful, horribly, colourless history, and we weren’t wanting to repeat any of it.

A Roomful of Superheroes

We went through a warren of rooms before we reached the surgery waiting room.

It was awash with children of various ages, none older than ten or twelve. Some looked shell-shocked, filled with fear for what was about to happen. I couldn’t work out if it was because it was to be an unknown experience or if it was because they knew exactly what was to come. Some sweet darlings just played or watched movies on the TV’s around the room.

The nurse that brought us into the room played her role perfectly. Reassuring but knowledgeable, ready to answer every question we had. Her warm smile and soft eyes brought a moment of comfort and peace.

As we sat, waiting for something, anything, to happen, a soft voice raised above it all and asked for Ari. We looked and he walked towards us.

With an aged Scottish accent he said hello to Ari first. Spoke to him, only him, for a moment. Our son is two and tends to dislike strangers, especially men he hasn’t met before. He just looked at him and talked back in his little child tones.

I asked most of the questions and he answered all of them. He looked me in the eyes, he never fidgeted or played with his watch. In that room filled with people, the three of us were the only ones he wanted to think about.

He was honest, and frank when he had to be, offering the advice that always has to be given; “I can’t say there are no risks, but it’s very safe.” I’ve heard that a few times in my life. Sometimes they’ve been wrong, and someone I cared for became the part of the statistic that makes it safe for everyone else. But it was a rare moment for me – I believed him. I completely and utterly believed and trusted him. “… and you’ve come to an excellent hospital, and Ari’s surgeon is an expert in his field.” I believe that, too.

Forty-Five Minutes, Maybe an Hour.

We were guided by a nurse to the wing in which the operating rooms were to be found.

We were again told it should be safe, and that it normally takes 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes more. She looked at us as she spoke. Right at us. She knew exactly when to aim a specific word or phrase at my wife, and when to talk to me, and when to pat Ari on his back.

It was starting to feel like we were in a dance, the best I’ve ever seen. Everything was natural but played out with precision.

I was the one who walked Ari into the OR. I held him tightly as we walked, and put him down gently on the operating table. The room was big. And clean. And organised. It felt like the most organised room in the world.

The doctors and nurses moved around, prepping what had needed it, talking to each other calmly. I’ve been in a few of these rooms, but never that I can recall as a patient.

As I put him on the table, the same doctor as before beamed “Hello again my little friend mister Ari!” Ari looked up at him as he placed the gas mask over his face. The nurse held him lovingly in place, reacting calmly when he started to fight. An arm he threw out in protest was gently caught and placed down by his side.

“Alright, thanks, you can go sit down in the waiting room again.” The doctor offered. I still trusted him.

“Give him a kiss before you go.” A nurse suggested. What a good idea.

I left him in a room of strangers and didn’t think twice about it. He’s never been away from my wife or I for more than five minutes his entire life, but I was about to leave him with strangers for an hour. And I felt fine about it. Completely, and utterly fine.

He had a whole, organised room, with half a dozen people, just for him.

45 minutes to an hour. That’s what we were told. 45 minutes to an hour for surgery, then however long it’d take him to wake up and eat and drink something. Maybe 90 minutes in all.

I sat down in the small waiting room, opposite my wife. We talked nervously, I felt shell-shocked. I was scared. She was scared. I was shown the parent’s tea room by another friendly and understanding nurse. The coffee was awful, but damn, this room was incredibly clean and organised, too. It seemed as though everything had its place.

Back in the waiting room I started to think about what I was going to fall into for the next hour or more. I came prepared with books spanning a range of topics, an iPhone filled with podcasts and music, and a copy of National Geographic if all I wanted to do was look at pretty pictures.

I decided to go for the calming ideas of Seneca. As I tried to find the energy to rummage through my bag for it, the door opened and a doctor burst in.

We had been told that the surgeon wouldn’t visit us until it was either over, or if something had gone wrong.

It had only been 15 minutes. Something must have gone wrong.

“Wow, it’s been forever since I saw you guys last! I looked at the paperwork and it was last October that we had the consult.”

“Uh, yeah, um, we were just talking about that” my wife offered back.

What the fuck is wrong what the fuck is wrong what the fuck is wrong what is going on fuck you its been a long time since we last say you what the fucking is going on why are you here why are you here why are you here whyareyouherewhyareyouherewhyareyouhere?

“So that went well. Not quite as perfectly as I’d like, but everything looks good – I’d just like to see Ari again for a follow-up in three or four months.”

It had been fifteen minutes.

They performed the hour long surgery in fifteen calm minutes.

“Um, that was very fast, we thought it would take an hour?” we asked. The surgeon went on to say that the anaesthesiologist, that doctor who had spoken to us earlier, was very good, very fast, gets it just right.

Roles Played Perfectly

The rest of the day played out as we had come to expect. The nurses were incredibly kind and caring and understanding and never once condescending to the neurotic questions lobbed at them by Ari’s over-nervous parents.

We sat in what might have been the most comfortable chair I’ve ever experienced holding Ari. They brought him food and water, they talked to him, smiled at him, waved back at him every time he said “Hi!” as they walked past.

I watched them move from child to child, anxious parent to anxious parent. They always played their roles perfectly. They made the kids feel comfortable, never tiring of their mood swings as they tried to handle their painkillers and exhaustion. They all laughed, just the right amount, just enough to make everyone feel ok.

And this room. This room was so big. And so neat, and organised. Everything was exactly where you thought it’d be.

* * *

All the doctors, nurses, and administration staff we spoke with played their parts with perfection. They were never condescending, always understanding. Even if we tried I’m sure we wouldn’t have been able to lob them a question they’d respond unkindly or dismissively to.

On the drive home I thought about what they must have seen in their careers.

Sick children. So sick they wouldn’t be recovering. They would have had children fade away before them. They would have had parents scream and cry and yell at them. They would have had their hearts broken a hundred times as kids they’d grow to know shatter down to nothingness.

Many tears fell from my face in the hospital. Not all for Ari, either.

I looked at the little baby who couldn’t stop crying, the one being held by his mother, being given oxygen through a tube in his nose, a tube that snaked around some large holes in his lip, and my heart broke.

I looked at the little girl with huge eyes. I could tell from how the nurses had spoken to her that she was a regular. One who hadn’t been in for a while. I wondered why. Was she getting worse? Or getting better? I listened to her cry, and sob, and wail. My lungs emptied and my throat burned when I heard one of the nurses say “Oh, happy birthday then! Let’s get you out of here quickly!”.

My soul shattered when the mentally disabled boy looked about the room in utter confusion, reaching out for his mother, asking for some lemonade.

I broke down several times that day.

But the professionals didn’t. They kept smiling, patting a hand or an arm at the right time to elicit hope and trust. They kept laughing, making jokes just as they were needed the most to distract from the pain or discomfort. They knew about every TV show and movie and video game the kids talked about. They answered every question.

They could have witnessed the worst moment of a family’s life, the could have been there as the emotional blackhole formed, but you couldn’t tell. They were there doing their job, doing it perfectly, doing it professionally.

Shallow Professionalism

It’s easy to think of professionalism as requiring the ability to limit emotion to its shallowest form. For some reason, most people think professionalism means being concerned with business and nothing but business, all the time.

The thing with business, especially the business of design, is that it’s about people. It’s about expressing ideas, eliciting emotion, informing, educating, and delighting our audience. When it’s great it’s about improving their days and their lives.

We’re not saving a baby’s life here. We’re not holding hearts in our hands. We’re not doing some of the hardest, sometimes most thankless and marginalised work like the professionals who looked after my family do, everyday. And they still show up the next day, they still smile and laugh and make nervous parents feel ok, and scared kids feel brave.

How do you act? I know how I do and standing amongst those strangers who I trusted with my most precious son, I felt ashamed.

I realise now I must act as professional as I can. Don’t dismiss a client’s concerns or changes, don’t think the audience stupid, the client uncultured, or myself as superior. We’re here to serve the audience first, the client second. We’re here to make them feel comfortable, maybe brave.

When you do so, there’s no time to complain about budgets and feedback and focus groups and research and bad photos and stupid copy and ridiculous changes.

All the stuff that comes our way, all the feedback and content we’re given, is simply input. It’s data. It’s something to be understood and handled properly. There’s no time to do anything else with it. There’s only time to do the best you can with what’s on the table in front of you. What we do is nothing compared to what these doctors and nurses do, not even close. The pressure isn’t the same, the hoped for outcome for them is a world apart from what we aim for. And they still act like professional human beings.