A Shared Sense of Rest: On Therapeutic Presence and the Power of Quiet

She was not my patient, but I had briefly met her earlier in the day, and my co-worker asked if I might be free to go in her room and just be with her awhile while my co-worker caught up on charting. The patient was having an anxiety attack, and the Ativan we had given her was not relieving her. I entered her room and saw that her family member, resting on the side, was also clearly not well. There was so much story in that room. So much loyalty. So much suffering. So much celebration of the patient’s recent birthday despite the suffering. So much medical equipment. So much brought from home in an attempt to bring home to the hospital. There was just so much in that room.

The TV was on, but at low volume. I introduced myself to the patient and asked if I could just stand next to her and hold her hand. She graciously accepted with a weak but sweet voice, slipped her hand into mine, and closed her eyes. It must have been five minutes, perhaps ten. Not a lot of time. But we were both so comfortable with the quiet, and I could have stayed there into the evening, just quiet, with her. She only broke the silence to ask me how she was doing. I told her I wasn’t familiar enough with her background to say, and asked how she thought she was doing. “Still weak,” she said. “Your body has been fighting hard,” I told her. She nodded and closed her eyes again.

Our beloved Child Life Specialist then entered with the most lovely, thoughtful birthday gifts for the patient. The patient opened each gift, and her weak, sweet eyes lit up with each one. “Thank you so much,” she said. It felt so good to celebrate her birthday, her life, with her and the Child Life Specialist. Acknowledging that the day she was born into this courageous fight that would be her life….was a beautiful, important day, worthy to be celebrated.

After the Child Life Specialist left, I stayed a few more minutes, and then asked the patient if she felt ok enough for me to step out of the room. She nodded yes, then looked at me and said, “Thank you for being quiet here with me.” I thanked her in return. It was a privilege.

For a few days, I couldn’t pinpoint why that brief encounter made such a deep impact on me, beyond the obvious ache stirred in seeing a patient’s suffering, as her family member physically suffered in the room as well. Finally it occurred to me, it had to do with the profound power of that quiet shared presence, both for her and for me.

It sounds cliché but it always remains true. We enter into healthcare truly wanting to help others, to relieve their suffering. Yet I realized that most of my shifts, I feel that what I do for, or rather to, my patients as their nurse, actually contributes to their suffering, even though I know in my head that much of this is necessary in the long run for their healing. Needle pricks, in-line suctioning, repositioning, hourly neurological checks that severely disrupt sleep, procedures. I am often rushed, stressed, feeling anything but quiet for them. Feeling anything but truly present with them. They are in their world, and I am in mine. We meet but we don’t really meet.

But that afternoon, I was able to share with this patient what I think she and I both really longed for. An assurance beyond words that neither of us would feel the aches in our hearts alone, regarding her condition, for at least a brief period of time. That we would give and receive from each other this shared quiet, this shared sense of rest from all the fighting that we all do in this hospital every day. It was truly a gift, something I hope to share with more of my patients in the days and years ahead.

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