One of my hands is soaking in a shallow bowl of soapy water, while a nail technician holds the other, turning it one way, then the next. She files my chipped and broken nurse’s fingernails into a more attractive shape. As she does so, she says “relax” whenever I hold my hand too stiffly for her to manipulate it. This catches my attention, because I had just come from work, where I’d spent the day starting IVs in patients, telling them, “relax,” so the catheter would thread more easily into their veins.
I often preface starting an IV with, “I know this is easy for me to say, being I’m not the one getting stuck with the needle, but the more relaxed you are, the easier this will be.”
I realize that a manicure is a much more pleasant experience than having an IV placed. What manicures and IV starts have in common, however, is the need to trust someone, often a stranger, touching your body, and literally putting yourself in their hands.
With this in mind, I’m astounded by the trust patients put in nurses. I mean, think about how we poke them with needles, whether in their chest ports or in peripheral veins, and then infuse chemicals otherwise known as “chemotherapy” into their bloodstream; medications so potent that the patient signs a consent allowing us to do this to them. The chemicals are so powerful, in fact, they can cause other varieties of the very disease (cancer) we administer them to cure.
This is a pretty huge demonstration of trust.
Once a hairstylist stylist told me, “When I cut someone’s hair, I’m in their sacred space.” I’ve kept this statement in mind ever since, whether it was performing a bed bath in the ICU, or now, taking a blood pressure or drawing blood from a vein with a butterfly needle.
No matter how clear our communication with patients, no matter the level of caring we demonstrate, if we forget that we have entered the sacred space of our patient’s body, these administrations will not be received with the intended appreciation.
Developing a soft touch in patient care, whether it’s honoring an adhesive allergy by finding a less irritating occlusive dressing, offering to numb a peripheral IV site or port before inserting a needle into it, or simply placing a hand on the shoulder of a patient who is visibly upset, are ways we tell patients we respect the sacredness of their bodies. We are there to help them relax.