This past summer, three of my regular patients died. In the client population I care for, complex illnesses, poor prognosis and greatly advanced age are the norm. Yet when someone whom I have come to know passes away, it still comes as a shock.
The profession of nursing is as much an art as it is a science. In an increasingly technologically advanced healthcare system, nurses may feel that computer programming is a mandatory skill. Nurses are expected to handle computerized pumps, monitors, even patient records. In school, our brains are crammed with pathology, physiology, biology, pharmacology, theory, not to mention the practical skills we need in order to provide quality care. There seems little time to learn the art of nursing.
It’s only when we allow ourselves to encounter the human side of our patients that we begin to develop the art, develop the heart of nursing. We need to give ourselves the time and permission to look well beyond the clinical diagnosis and get to know the person – their concerns, fears and hopes.
The danger is we become too attached, that we lose our professional objectivity. Only with experience and maturity do we learn to care for the person but still maintain nursing objectivity that is important for seeing the illness with the proper perspective.
Those of us who work in the community – the visiting nurses – have the added challenge of seeing our patients in their home environment. This makes objectivity harder since we get to know our patients on a deeper level in their home. We become familiar with the smells wafting from the kitchen, their favourite chair, the soap operas on TV, even their ragged old housecoat. The nurse gets treated more like a guest with offers of a meal which professionally, we politely decline; a piece of home-baked goodness wrapped carefully and slipped into our hand because “you have a long day ahead;” a blessing with holy water on the forehead because “you take such good care of me.” That’s the heart of nursing.
So when a patient dies, we allow ourselves to let down our objective guard just for a little while so that we can mourn the friend we’ve lost. I commend my deceased patients to the mercy of God and to the care of Mother Mary whether or not they are believers. The person is still a child of God whether they know it or not. I say I do it for them, but I think I do it more to console myself.
I prayed for each of the three patients I lost this summer and gave my condolences to their families. And then I put up my finely-honed nursing objectivity and carried on.