The Small Unforgettable Lesson: On Feeling the Gap Between the Nurse and the Patient’s Family

Disoriented, exhausted, and almost slightly embarrassed, she emerged from her dark room and blinked. I was the nurse for a different patient a couple doors down and had occasionally glanced at the photos she had taped on the front of her son’s door throughout the day – photos of her infant son in his healthier moments with his bright-eyed big sister, sharing moments of affection and play as young siblings do. The photos made me think of my own children, about the same age. I quietly noticed I wouldn’t let myself think too much of the similar life stages between my kids and hers. It was now early evening, about hour ten of my twelve-hour shift, and it was the first time I’d seen her emerge. Her hair was tied up and her clothes were those of a mother seeking comfort in whatever form she could find, if she had to live in the hospital with her child for weeks at a time. She blinked, looked around for her nurse, and when she didn’t see her nurse, she asked those of us at the station, “Could I just get some water? I just realized I’m dying of thirst.”

We were having a relatively lighter day, and we nurses were caught mid-conversation about something silly. My colleague said of course we could get her water, and left to fetch it. She stood there waiting somewhat awkwardly, her expression caught in some in-between place. She looked as if what she really wanted to do was return to her dark room, lonely but private, tragic but familiar, and had emerged into a half-outside world that was a change from her sad bedside vigil, but still too painful the reminder that no, she hadn’t just woken up from a nightmare, and yes she was still in the hospital with her child. Her eyes gazed hazily down the hall.

I told her the pictures of her children were beautiful. “Thank you,” she replied, her voice drifting off. A few moments later, she said, “We haven’t seen his sister in a few months.” I can’t remember my response, but it was brief, something along the lines of, “Oh…that’s so hard.” She stayed quiet. Another nurse walked by and made a side commentary related to our earlier silly conversation, and I made some forgettable reply with a small chuckle. My colleague returned with the water pitcher for the mother, and she silently slipped back into her dark room.

It’s a moment that has stayed with me. I see it as a missed opportunity for genuinely empathetic, compassionate care, and each time my mind wanders back to that brief exchange, it makes me sad and makes me resolve to do better. I sensed the tremendous gap between her world and ours, just in taking that step from her son’s room out to our nursing station. I could see she felt it and was at best disoriented, at worst feeling very much alone even among the caregivers. I had not really met her as she had opened up a bit of our conversation to her experience as a mother estranged from her precious daughter as she wearily poured her energy into her very ill son…and I closed that conversation without gently coming to her side, instead cracking some stupid side joke and shutting her back into her private world.

Some could argue, well I wasn’t her nurse and I had to keep up some emotional self-protection because her kids reminded me too much of my own and that’s hard. Some might write it off and tell me I am being too hard on myself, which may have some truth. But it stays with me nonetheless because I still think it matters. I think it is the kind of interaction that makes the difference between one who just does the work of a nurse and one who cares for the heart of a mother with greater empathy, social skill, and wisdom than I had that day.

She most likely remembers very little of that conversation. But I remember it, this small unforgettable lesson, and my resolve is to do better.

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