I am a nurse first. When I think of the roles I play in life, I know in my heart that my passion is nursing. One of the many wonderful things about being a nurse is that it encompasses many job descriptions. For the past five years I have been privileged to try to inspire passion about nursing in new nursing students. I am aware that there are those who enter nursing motivated by factors that are less about caring for others, that are more practical and pragmatic. But the everyday life of being a nurse brings much stress and many demands that cannot be compensated for in hard cash. And if your heart is not in it, it is going to be a long hard road to retirement.
One of the prerequisites for being a good nurse is a genuine love for people. You are going to see people at their most vulnerable, on their bad hair days, in pain, angry at the world, miserable. And yet. And yet I have been taught some of my best lessons in life by listening to some of those you would think had little to offer. Simple, genuine acts of kindness and caring are sometimes rewarded in the oddest way. There is a lady in a local nursing home who knows only her name. Dementia, that cruel thief, has stolen her cognitive skills, destroyed her short term memory. She is at the stage where, like many other sufferers, she has the urge to move. She needs to be somewhere other than here, there is some place she is supposed to be. On several occasions I have sat with her, just to distract and pay attention to her. The other day she dropped several pearls of wisdom on me. “People shouldn’t act like they know everything. They can always learn something.” “You have to be nice to people.” And although she doesn’t know me from one visit to the next, yesterday she thanked me, and told me “I like talking to you.” It is impossible to know what this lady was like before a good part of her mind was eaten away by Alzheimer’s disease, but her gentleness, her love of people, continues to shine through.
Sometimes we are consumed by material things; we yearn for the nice car, we know our life would be so enhanced by a pair of shoes or jewelry; we judge the outer appearance of others. If you were in a place where all of that was removed, would you still be able to find joy, still be able to think of others? The lady that I described above automatically tries to help others in the nursing home, offering to push their wheelchair, swift to pick things up when they fall. Her kindness is instinctive, automatic.
There are times when kindness is not instinctive. In the face of loud angry people, your desire may be to fight fire with fire, to give as good as you get. There are many drivers out there who respond to the bad driving of others by trying to pay them back, to teach them a lesson. Who gains from that exercise? How does that improve your day? Practicing kindness requires patience. It requires the knowledge that you may be even seen as weak in this macho, posturing world. It takes a bigger man.
But back to nursing. It gives my heart joy when I see new nursing students interact with the residents of nursing homes and get pleasure from being appreciated. Never mind the skills, techniques and competencies, never mind the intelligence, judgment and wisdom that it takes to be a good nurse; if you lack the capacity to be kind and compassionate you will be a cruel nurse. And the one who is being nursed will know it and will suffer.
It takes many hours of studying to know drugs and diseases; to learn lab values and algorithms; to remember facts and risk factors. But if you don’t learn the compassion, caring, and kindness that must be genuine and can be demonstrated in a moment with a look of understanding, or a healing touch, your skills will be like those noisy gongs and clashing cymbals.
Recently I was reminded of something my father-in-law told me many years ago, after suffering a stroke. I had gone to visit him and was in a rush to assist him with a bath, something I had promised him in a letter, long before I met him for the first time. I was upset that I was unable to take care of him in the way I took care of strangers every day. When I got there he made sure I understood that he was in charge, I could not come in and take over. “You may be a nurse” he told me, “but you don’t know sick.” He was making sure I knew that to be sick, to have ill health, cannot be taught in a book. I have heard that echoed several times by those who face illness, especially chronic illness. We have textbooks full of signs and symptoms, diagrams of diseased systems, photos of cells gone awry. But we have few stories of those who know the disorders from the inside, the subjective experience of being ill. Perhaps if we remembered to listen more, we would learn what we don’t know.
So this weekend I would encourage everyone to practice kindness (nurses and non-nurses alike!). And the wonderful thing about kindness is that it comes back to you a hundredfold. And if it begins with kindness to yourself, you will be that more genuine when you show it to others. There is a Jamaican proverb that says “Howdy an tenk yu nu bruk no square” (It doesn’t cost anything to be polite). And there is a local DeeJay and friend of mine who closes his show by saying: “Remember, it is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice.”
May you have a wonderful weekend family!