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Every Patient Has a Story

Every Patient Has a Story

Marijke Durning | NursingLink

We don’t mean to do it. We don’t mean to stop seeing the people behind the patient facade. We know our patients have lives outside of the hospital, beyond their illness or disability. They have interests, hobbies, work, and love. They have friends and family. They may have had a charmed life, or they may have had a tough one. There is so much about our patients that we don’t know.

But what is it that makes some of us stop seeing the person behind the patient? Is it compassion fatigue? Are we getting to a point that we don’t (or can’t) allow ourselves to see beyond the physical tasks in an effort to protect ourselves? Or are we just too busy to look beyond what needs to be done so that we don’t have time to look at the person, and just see the patient? It’s a lesson I learned a few years ago that has stayed with me years later.

I was working in palliative care and one of our patients that night was a woman in her seventies. She was actively dying of cancer. She looked like many of the patients we’ve come to expect in palliative care: Emaciated, no hair, and very pale. She was alone in the room, a small figure in the bed.

My colleague and I gave her the care she needed, speaking to her the whole time, although she gave no indication of hearing us. Then, as was my ritual, I looked around at the dresser and table to see if anything needed to be removed. I saw an old photograph of a beautiful young woman. It was a striking photo; the black-and-white image showed a laughing woman, her hair thick and full, her skin clear and young. This was the woman in the bed.

At that moment I remembered that despite my claims to the contrary, I had stopped looking at my patients as people. The photo struck me hard, so hard that I had to tear myself away from it. After our rounds, we went back to the nursing station and I remember saying to my colleague that it should be mandatory to have photos of our patients – photos of their other life, the life untouched by dying.

After this, I became more aware of my other patients and their stories: The graduation photo of a young man who had barely started his adult life; the bulletin boards that held family pictures and drawings by young children who can barely write their name. Some rooms held mementos of hobbies, travels, or loved treasures – they all had a story to tell. I learned about the type of people my patients were and the things they loved to do. These things weren’t symbols of fond memories for patients, but important markers for caregivers too.

It’s not that it’s easy to become jaded in nursing. We’re desensitized to a lot of things in our personal lives too. We live in a fast-paced world where we have to make decisions and snap judgment calls. To do this, many of us protect ourselves by only looking at the superficial, not looking beyond the surface level.

But the truth is, we don’t need to protect ourselves. Looking at the person behind the patient helps us be better nurses; we can learn a lot about ourselves and the people around us.

And who knows? Maybe it will make our jobs easier in the long run… or maybe someone will, at some point down the road, understand that nurses have a story too.

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