Caring for someone else is not all about you

Incoming students, you need to hear this: it’s not all about you. Let me explain.

My first hospital rotation was on an oncology floor. I answered a patient’s call light by myself. She asked if we had any extra tissues, I said yes, and as I turned to leave she said, “I just got a phone call from my mother’s nurse.” Her mother was in hospice care, and the nurse had just told her that her mother was probably going to pass today and that she should come right over to the house.

The patient started to cry because she felt so guilty that she was stuck in the hospital with a complication from her lung cancer while her mother could pass at any moment. She started fumbling with legal papers that she still needed to fill out, looking up phone numbers, and she pulled on her IV lines. She wanted to leave, but knew she had to stay. She rambled between sharing her feelings of guilt to telling me about her mother when she was growing up.

Her emotions were spiraling. I froze, watching her from the doorway. What should I do? What should I say? Should I offer a tissue? Put my hand on her shoulder? Get her nurse?

We had just finished learning about therapeutic communication in school, and I desperately tried to remember the communication techniques and phrases we learned in class. Anything! But my mind was blank. Instead of listening to her, I was focusing on what I would say next. I was lost in my own thoughts.

The patient broke my internal debate about how I should respond by saying, “Are you listening?” I wasn’t listening, but I lied and said yes. There is something about obvious lies, they’re obvious to everyone else. She stopped speaking, politely thanked me for my time, and said she just wanted to be alone now.

I had failed. I hated that I couldn’t remember any of the therapeutic communication techniques from class. Deflated, I slumped down in a chair at the nurse’s station. An older nurse came over and asked if I were ok. I explained the situation and said how bad I felt that I didn’t do better.

She was quiet for a bit and then said, “It sounds like you still haven’t learned the lesson. Instead of focusing on how bad you feel, think about how the patient feels. Caring for someone else is not all about you.”

I thought for a minute.

She was right. For at least this moment, all that mattered was her mother. The patient didn’t want me to solve her problems. There wasn’t a golden sentence that would make everything ok. She was alone in a hospital room, and wanted someone to listen and share this life event with her.

Students, there will come a time when you won’t know what to say, how to respond, or what to do. That’s ok. And when that happens, listen. Just listen, and I mean really listen. Let the patient speak, then there will be silence, still don’t speak, the patient will fill the silence and start speaking more. You’ll know when the patient has finished sharing and, if you truly listened, you’ll know what to say next.

With increasing scope of practice, technological advances, and changing hospital policies, the art of patient care can get muffled. But at its core, patient care lives in the beauty of raw human connections.

Put down your papers, stop thinking, and be present in the moment. And remember, caring for someone else is not all about you.

Good luck in school.

Brian Slayton is an oncology nurse.

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