2011 Winning Essay
Columbia University School of Nursing
New York City, NY
I’ve watched the documentary, A Nurse I Am, several times now. Initially, the nurses featured reminded me of my Aunt Margie, a pediatric oncology nurse who died two years ago. She is the main reason I choose nursing as a career. Not only because of the person she was to me and the amazing nurse she was to her kids, but because of the nurses who cared for her in her final days.
She died in the hospital, after a fairly short stay, from complications of a MRSA infection. We never saw the same doctor twice and we never saw her primary care physician. We saw a new doctor every day. All well trained, technically competent, but emotionally detached from us. In the end, it was the nurses who engaged with only only Margie, but with all my family members who were with her. They were the ones who were there for us to answer questions, to comfort us, to hug us when she died.
I saw the care she was provided by those nurses and I was impressed. As I thought a career path, those nurses, Aunt Margie and the ones who cared for her, had an impact on me.
After the first viewing, I thought to myself, “Perhaps I’ve chosen the wrong profession. I can’t measure up to these people: Mona Counts, Bob Wilkinson, Ardis Bush.” After the second viewing, I wasn’t so much intimidated by their example as I was curious about them. That curiosity is the topic of this essay.
What characteristics do they all share that I’d most like to emulate, even if I can’t match it? They each exhibit wonderful characteristics: humor, openness, empathy, honesty, energy, dedication and availability. How to condense that list into one or two traits most worth my trying to match? For me, the signature trait, shared by all of them, is one that embodies all of the above and is the one that, in my nursing career, I will work hard to emulate. Compassion. Not the dictionary definition, which begins with the word PITY, but a more comprehensive notion of the concept.
Compassion involves kindness. Bob with his kids and their families. Bob with his willingness to shave his head. Ardis with her patient in the hallway, pulling her IV pole behind her while looking for her pain medication. Mona as described by patients, “She cares about you: you’re not a statistic to her.” And by another who says of her “She says things in a way I can understand them.”
It involves curiosity, without assumptions, about those in your care. Who are you? What path have you traveled to get here? Who has traveled with you? Who is with you now? Mona, Bob and Ardis each display not only knowledge of their patients, but curiosity about each patient’s support system as well. Their concern is for the whole family and other supporting cast where there is one not just the patients’ symptoms and disease.
Empathy, the ability to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings being experienced by others is another component of compassion. The look on Bob’s face as he recalled the conversation he had with one of his cancer kids who talked of dying. Ardis as she talked about her sister’s death.
Compassion involves a willingness to see beauty in others, not simply the current diagnosis. Ardis sat on a porch swing with a nurse (former co-worker) who is obviously worried about her own mortality. No false hope is proffered, just an attentive ear and encouragement to stay the course. Mona works with a patient named Virginia Tucker. Similarly to Ardis and her former co-worker, Mona sees the whole person, and commits to help Virginia stay in her home as long as possible. A commitment she makes in the face of Virginia’s obvious decline.
Krista Tippett, in a talk given at a TED Conference in November of 2010, posits that true compassion leads to tenderness and is a sign of deeper human possibilities. The possibility that each of us has the capacity to help and repair the part of the world we can see and touch. Each of the nurses in the documentary show true compassion. They really do display the ability to help and repair.
I only hope to do the same in my career.