Giving Firsthand Advice

Lying on an operating room table with your head shaved while doctors probe your brain with a microelectrode would seem like an odd time to contemplate your future employment. However, it was during her pallidotomy operation at Emory Hospital in the fall of 1993 that Parkinson's disease patient Terrie Whitling discovered her calling. "I was lying on the operating table thinking, The doctors are doing a fantastic job, but I'm just lying here, locked down, and I can't see anything and I don't know what's going on around me," she says. "Someone needs to be there, to be [the patient's] eyes and ears. . . . You need someone who has been through it themselves, someone who can talk the talk with them because they have walked the walk."

Whitling decided she needed to be that person. A health care worker for more than a decade prior to her operation, she is now the patient support liaison for those undergoing the pallidotomy procedure at Emory Hospital. To date she has worked with more than forty Parkinson's patients who have had the operation. "My day begins the same time their day begins, when the neurosurgery resident puts the head gear on," she says. "Then I'm pretty much by his or her side the entire day. I help them deal with their anxiety. I answer their questions. I keep them distracted. I do some music therapy if that's appropriate. I do relaxation techniques. I tell bad jokes. I sing songs, hymns, pray, whatever that person needs.

"Everyone is different. I try to know enough about that person before we get [into the operating room] so I know what they are going to need to get through it. . . . From a psychological standpoint, it's comforting for [the patients] to have someone there by their side who has been down that same road they have, someone who knows firsthand what's going to happen to them."--J.D.T.

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