Small Ways To A Patient's Heart
By Laura Fitzgerald, ASRN Staff Writer
Several years ago I did a favor for a friend. I worked a few nights as a private duty nurse to her father who was dying of cancer. I had never met him before that first night when the introductions were made. There was some small talk and a few updates on how he had been that day, then I found myself alone with my patient. We’ll call him Mr. Smith.
After a few minutes of small talk we both ran out of things to say. It wasn’t time for any medication, and he wasn’t ready for bed. I looked around for something to fill the time. His hospital gown was clean, his bed was neat and smooth. But, then I noticed something. Given what I knew about his daughter and what she had told me about Mr. Smith, I knew he was a man of pride and quiet dignity. Yet, here he sat, giving control of the last days and weeks of his life over to a sea of uniforms and pain. He was trying his best with the situation, but it just wasn’t home and it wasn’t his own life any more.
What could I do for him? With our ever increasing patient loads and higher acuity levels, it’s very rare that a nurse would have the time to look for the small things that can really make a difference to our patients. Here I had an opportunity to try, just a little, to do the things that I truly became a nurse for: to lift spirits, and heal wounds that the eye can and cannot see. These are the things that a easily overlooked in the stress of the shift and the more pressing care that needs to be given.
My gaze settled on Mr. Smith’s face. This charming man’s chin was scruffy, though what little hair he had was neatly combed. When was the last time he’d been able to shave? Shaving a man’s face was one of those skills I learned at the beginning of nursing school and never thought about again. In reality, not many nurses do have a need to practice this skill outside of surgery prep. Frequently used or not, it was a skill that I had and a skill I could share with Mr. Smith.
“How would you like me to give you a shave before bed? It might help you relax and sleep better.”
He looked at me with doubt.
I gave him a grin and a sly wink. “Trust me, I’m a professional.” Well, it was sort of true.
When he consented, I gathered some supplies and began to warm some water. For the next 20 minutes or so he talked and I shaved. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a nurse. Just a few minutes of unhurried time and a simple act made Mr. Smith feel more normal and dignified. It also gave me an increased appreciation for the work of an aide or tech. Sure, it’s backbreaking and often unpleasant to help patients with their most basic needs and care. But on the other hand, when it’s accomplished with dignity and respect, the aide can touch the very heart of a patient.
When I finished the shave, he rubbed his chin and checks, still a little suspicious of my shaving skills. By the time he pulled his hand away in satisfaction a change had come over him. He sat up a little straighter, he looked a little less tired, and his smile had reached his eyes.
It didn’t require my knowledge of his medications or disease process. All it took was a little time and a little human kindness.
Shortly after that I gave him his medications and bade him goodnight. He slept, and the rest of the night passed without incident. I slipped out before he woke up the next morning; whispering my report to his returning family. I didn’t mention the shave and I don’t know that they immediately noticed. Still, it had left an impression with me.
A few nights later I stepped into Mr. Smith’s room and reported for private duty once again. We exchanged some pleasantries while I checked and made sure everything was in order. Then I sat down next to his bed and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you before bed?”
He reached a hand back up to his chin. “How ‘bout a shave?”
“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Smith.Fitzgerald, ASRN Staff
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