As nurses, we have an awesome responsibility and privilege to make a positive difference in the lives of patients and families that we care for in sometimes unexpected and almost unbearable life and death experiences. In certain situations, expressing genuine emotion can be a sincere way to provide emotional support.
Although it’s been more than 30 years ago, I remember the occasion very clearly. My first death on Peds as the charge nurse. It was horrible. A four-month old with a congenital heart defect was to be discharged that afternoon. He was to go home and grow a bit more before undergoing a surgery that would correct his heart anomaly.
I had just come from the room not 5 minutes earlier and the baby was laughing and playing on his father’s lap. So cute..... The frantic father suddenly appeared in the hallway with the baby in his arms. He was no longer laughing but his little body was lifeless, his face very pale.
We rushed him to the treatment room as the code was called and the baby’s physician was notified. Any code is unpleasant, but a code blue on a Peds floor is a dreadful experience.
The tiny treatment room was alive with a high level of anxiety and activity as the many responders crowded around the tiny pale body. Many were unsure of dosages for one so small, but were willing to help in what ever way they could. The baby’s pediatrician arrived and took charge. Despite the long and valiant efforts of many, the baby did not survive.
We were all exhausted......emotionally and physically. The family was devastated as was the entire medical team, tears streaming down the faces of many. There were so many tears. Even the pediatrician was crying. So very sad..........
The parents were holding onto one another, sobbing quietly, as the doctor and nurses tried to offer their support. In the face of such an overwhelming and painful crisis, nurses were able to make a difference that day as they provided tender and compassionate care to the mother, father, and extended family....through their tears.
Because of the very nature of our work, nurses encounter many situations of grief, death, sorrow, and crisis. While we frequently witness others crying around us, we try to maintain a “level of professionalism”, keeping our emotions in check, especially in front of the patient and/or the family, or other staff. Some people view a display of emotion as weakness, and will suppress their feelings, remaining controlled at all times. As a nurse, it is certainly necessary to control your emotions so you can handle a situation and provide safe and appropriate physical care for the patient. But periodically, not showing our emotions.....our humanness......is viewed as cold and unfeeling. In certain situations, expressing genuine emotion can be a sincere way to provide emotional support.
Nurses work very closely with their patients, providing intimate care to the whole person on a daily basis. We see their struggles against their disease; we hear their cries of pain. As we share intimate and intense conversations with patients regarding their care as well as their fears and concerns, we get to know more about them as a person. Because we get to know them and their families so well, we end up caring for them. It is easy to become attached, even though we try to put up our professional boundaries.
Patient suffering and death does affect us as nurses. How we respond is different for each of us. As nurses, we strive to provide compassionate care, sharing in the grief, loss, and fear experienced by patients and their families. We want to do more than just go through the motions, becoming numb to the pain of others.
Seeing that doctor cry openly after the death of that infant so many years ago, made a profound impact on a very young nurse who was just embarking on her career. My level of respect for him as a doctor and a person grew. Since that time, I have seen many nurses and doctors shed tears in the presence of the patient and/or family.
These days, I more often care for people on the other end of the life cycle. I am often called upon to stand alongside someone as they take their last breath. I still get tears in my eyes, but I don’t even try to hide them.
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