Long hours, thankless days, bulging disks, and sore feet. That’s what being a nurse most often means to me on my long walk to the car after a 12-hour shift, or on the 20-mile drive home from work.
I don’t receive commissions (unless the occasional generous family who brings us bagels counts). The closest thing to a luxury, all-expense paid business trip I have ever received is my employer’s tuition reimbursement after a two-day Advanced Cardiac Life Support class (and NOT luxurious or relaxing at all).
Oh, and there is no company car.
And then, there are days like one in particular last week when, I stepped in to help another nurse and met her patient for the very first time. Before I ever opened my mouth and said hello, he told me that he could tell I was a racist.
The words that followed that were some of the most hurtful and, in my opinion, undeserved words I’d ever heard (not to mention uncalled for and about as far from the truth as possible). It was difficult, and I had to keep reminding myself that he was confused. I had to remember that I do not care for people based on how they feel about me. And, a friend and fellow nurse had to continue reminding me that he was confused.
Thank God for our colleagues and friends. They get us through many of our longest days.
But I’m not writing this to whine about the long hours nurses work, or to complain about the ungratefulness of people in general. I didn’t become a nurse so that I could work minimal hours, bring in a 6-digit income, or be showered with gifts of thankfulness.
I am writing this because of a South African nurse with a charming accent who winked at my Dad the day my family and I transitioned him into hospice care. I am writing this because I am sorry that I did not return to tell her that her wink not only comforted my father, but changed the course of my life, when two weeks later I would apply to nursing school and pursue an entirely new career.
I am writing this because despite long, hard, difficult days, I never want to lose sight of why I chose to become a nurse.
I am writing this because nurses need to encourage nurses.
I am writing this because yesterday I was reminded by the family of a patient who became very, very dear to me – that what sometimes seem like meaningless gestures to us as nurses, are in fact the very acts of kindness that endear us most to them.
I am writing this because for every time I made a positive impact by valuing time with my patient more than “checking off a task,” I remember a time that I didn’t. The truth is – I’m also able to recall many times when watching the clock prevented me from making a meaningful difference in the day of my patient.
The fact is – our day is not a series of “check-off’s” to get done, though often our employers make us feel as though they are. Medication times, charting, and our initials next to hourly rounding are important – yes, of course! But those things will never be as important to our patients or their families as the beards we trimmed before a family member arrived from across the country, the homeless man’s feet we scrubbed, or the clay molds made to remember the tiny hands of a beloved baby lost to crib death. They will never be remembered like the hands we held during a frightening procedure, the tears we shed when we discussed the reality of a prognosis, or the acknowledgement of the difficulty a wife has saying goodbye to her husband – of 70 years.
There is no greater “bonus” than having a family return to find the nurses who cared for their loved ones, because they found it important that we know the difference our care made. There is nothing quite like hearing, “My Dad would have wanted you to know…..” And to what can we compare those times when recovered patients return healed? Wanting to walk the halls of the unit where they had previously fought for their lives? To see the faces of the nurses who bathed them and dressed their wounds, and hug them for those encouraging words they shared behind closed curtains? To what “bonus” can we compare these times?
You know, I’ve always found it supernaturally (but not so coincidentally) peculiar that whenever these special reunions happen – the phones stop ringing, call lights cease blinking, and time seems to stand still – as if the moment is a gift for both nurse and patient.
Most of all, I am writing this because of a promise I made to a nursing colleague and friend years ago. We promised each other that encouraging younger nurses and each other would be something we would make a priority in our practice throughout our careers.
Sharon and I have kept our promise.
All of those little things we do – an extra blanket, a cold wash cloth, a back scratch, or simply pulling up a chair and making eye contact, all make the difference in our patients’ days. I don’t ever want to lose sight of that. I know that often the difference we make is not something we will hear about, but I hope we continue to make a difference anyways!
It’s the little things – it truly is.
Please. Put your phones away. Look your patients in the eyes. Lean in. Hold their hands. You just might make an eternity of a difference. You just might.
I have a long call shift to look forward to tomorrow, and as I get ready to call it a night and head to bed, I am feeling exceptionally grateful for my friend Sharon with whom I shared this promise years ago. The promise to encourage younger nurses, and to continue to keep what really matters the focus of our patient care.
I am also going to bed thankful for the patient who endeared himself to me enough that I cried all the way home from work yesterday, and for the family who knew he would have wanted me to know that he had passed. Because yes, I certainly did want to know. I fought my tears all the way down the hall and out to my car. But you know, the day I stop caring enough to cry, I probably need a new career.
You see, when a nurse cries, she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.
I sure could use a few gummy bears. This nurse loves gummy bears.
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