No doubt you were attracted to the field of medicine because they
have a deep caring and interest in helping humankind. From the
time you entered nursing or medical school until you begin to
work in a healthcare setting -- learning the ins and outs of illness,
medicine as a means to a hopeful recovery -- is your primary
focus. Later the demands of your work increase and too often, the
patient – the reason you chose this profession to begin with --
seems to fade away.
Commencements are a time of celebration, reflection – a new
beginning or start. What better time that to hear directly from the
source – a patient – who has had first-hand experience of being ill
as well as treated by those of you who have worked so hard and
studied so diligently. A patient is someone who is painfully and/or
blissfully aware of the impact a nurse or many nurses have in
helping to heal her illness. Imagine hearing from a patient(s)
before entering fully into the profession, perhaps at your
commencement. We all remember a compelling story about how
someone’s words or actions have impacted someone else. Not
only would this be of benefit to you as a graduating nurse, but
also to the friends and family members in attendance.
Rosalyn Carter put is so perfectly when she said
"There are only four kinds of people in the world:
those who have been caregivers,
those who are currently caregivers,
those who will be caregivers,
and those who will need caregivers."
As graduation and future caregivers as nurses, who better to hear
from than a patient with a story (or a few) to tell about the impact
you have the ability to make in your patient’s healing process.
As a patient myself, and one who is nothing but grateful for my
medical team of physicians and nurses (who I saw the most
frequently), I think it would be hugely beneficial to let graduates
know of the impact they will have on the ill as well as patient’s
family members and friends who, like them, are also caregivers.
When I speak to audiences of health care professionals, I’ve been
told that I am “generously poignant” in sharing the ups and downs
of my life before, during and after my emergency liver transplant
(2005) that was wrought with complications. I share my story from
my heart because I want future medical professionals to know the
true difference that they make in the lives of their patients.
I speak with first-hand authority of what it’s like to be on the
receiving end of medical treatments and how small things had
such a big impact on me . . . and my family members. The
narratives and stories we share with others are what people
remember. The vision that can be described by the person who
has experienced something is more powerful than imagining what
it “might have been like” for that individual.
Here’s a sneak peek at what I share with graduating nurses that
they might not have heard in nursing school and has recently
been published in my book, Patient Speak, 7 Communication
Practices to Improve Patient and Family Experience.
What you say to a patient has power. The manner in which you
say it, through your tone of voice and intonation has power and
meaning to a patient. Never forget the impact you have and
please don’t underestimate offering hope to someone who’s ill.
There is a clear connection between emotional and mental well-
being and your ability to heal. I know.
At my absolute lowest – after being discharged after six
consecutive months of hospitalization – I was at my doctor’s office
where my medication had to be adjusted. My surgeon left the
room and my nurse practitioner Erin had her back facing me as
she was writing instructions down related to my new medication. I
was at my absolute lowest – having not showered for days,
wearing the same sweat suit from Target, with suicidal thoughts
coming in and out of my consciousness. “Erin,” I asked her, “will I
ever get better?”
Erin slowly turned around to me and looked me in the eye and
said very steadily and with a strong voice, “Yes. Yes, you will get
better.” I know now that Erin had no idea if I really would get
better – after a six-month hospitalization, I was in the midst of
being readmitted to the hospital 11 times during the following six
months that I was in the midst of when I saw Erin this time. It was
truly a touch and go situation. I held onto her words because I
needed to believe that if Erin thought I could get through this, then
maybe – just maybe I would. What you say matters and never
underestimate the power of giving someone hope.
Compassion is Key
Showing your compassion can be said in words, or expressed in
gestures, a gentle touch, a caring glance and direct eye contact
and acknowledgement of your patient and what he or she might
be going through. It can be expressed in the way that Erin so
graciously did when she gave me the belief that I could and would
A light touch of your hand, offering direct eye contact and a caring
tone of voice all reinforce compassion and respect of your patient
as an individual and we feel your caring.
Delivering unfortunate news to a patient or family member that
they don’t want to hear is not easy. It can be done in a way that
leaves the patient or caregiver with a feeling that you, as a health
care professional, is concerned and understands the
disappointment that less than positive, or devastating news is
always difficult to hear.
Relating on a Human to Human Level
When I first arrived in ICU, the nurse who was assigned to me
was Frank. I’ve written about Frank extensively because he made
such a positive impression on me from day one. Within an hour of
arriving to the ICU via ambulance from my local ER, Frank
inquired about my manicure and asked me “what is that on your
nails?” I replied it was a French Manicure. He also noted that my
toes had been painted the same way and I said, “yes, that’s a
He mentioned something about being from Maine and not having
seen that before, but he did say – “It looks like you take good care
of yourself, and I’m going to take good care of you too.” I was
sold. Although I don’t believe the benchmark of taking care of
oneself is having a French mani/pedi -- but Frank took the time to
relate to me on a very personal, human to human level with the
conversation about something as simple as my finger and toe
nails. His effort to make a connection and strike up a conversation
with me – knowing I was as ill as I was when I entered ICU –
helped me to believe that he had my best interest at heart and
really would “take good care of me.”
Little Things Mean a Lot
Sometimes, the seemingly small things you do – perhaps even
big things you do by going above and beyond -- will be
remembered and talked about for years to come. You may never
know it and it almost always won’t be acknowledged in the
moment because your customer – your patient – is sick. That
doesn’t mean we won’t forget what you did. We remember.
I’ll never forget the time my nurse Frank (same guy, same place)
showed up early for his shift to take me for a CT scan one
afternoon in August. On what I thought was the way back to my
room post scan, Frank pushed my gurney into unchartered
hallways. As we cruised down the basement of the hospital, I saw
two large black double doors that Frank opened . . . onto the
loading dock of the hospital. I was in ICU for nearly three months
and had been expressing (by mouthing out the words because I
couldn’t speak) my desire to go outside. I was continuously told
that I was too immune suppressed and it wouldn’t be allowed.
But on that glorious August day, my nurse Frank had made an
executive decision with compassion and courage I needed -- to
bring some sunlight into my life. He pushed me into the sunlight
on those docks, lifted my Johnny up and stood beside me for
about five minutes. It was the most memorable act of kindness I
experienced while in ICU and I haven’t stopped sharing the story.
Put Situations or Circumstances in Context
Context is so important and sharing the reason behind asking a
series of questions or doing things a particular way is critical in
building trust and credibility between people. When context is
provided, a patient doesn’t personalize everything that’s
happening to and around them.
I participated in an intake role-playing exercise where I had to
dress in a Johnny and get into a hospital bed and “act as if” I was
entering the hospital with the same conditions of my illness when I
first entered ICU.
Within in seconds of my explaining my symptoms, she asked two
questions – both necessary to have the answers to when you
enter a SICU. She asked me if I had a health care proxy and if I
had an end of life plan. Although they are questions that need
answers to, I shared my feedback and suggested that they could
have been phrased differently if more context had been
established. Here’s how I’d suggest those questions be asked.
“We have to ask everyone who comes through our doors a couple
of questions because we need to know the answers to them. Do I
have your permission to do that?” If context had been established
from the get go – and had been set up like this, a patient would
have thought that these are questions that need answers to them
– and it’s not unique to me because of how ill I am. They need to
know and I’m happy to tell them. Without that context, increased
anxiety for patients is the result.
Above All, Treat Patients as Humans with Lives Beyond
Patients are people too. Always remember that we have lives
beyond our illness. We have careers, families, relationships,
interests, etc. that need to be acknowledged. Connecting with
people on a human to human level is the ultimate way of caring
And for that we, I – your patients – thank you.
So, who else would you want to hear from at the commencement
of your nursing education than someone who can personally
share their experience of the impact that you will make on
someone – but more likely, many people?
If you haven’t yet chosen your roster of commencement speakers
I hope you’ll consider asking a patient to share their experience
with the graduating class so you can hear the difference you have
the ability to make in someone’s life by choosing this profession.