Hand

 “All nurses are different. Some just jab the needle into you, and it hurts.”

-A patient

White Gloves by jparadisi

White Gloves by jparadisi

Few things make me feel more successful as a nurse than when a patient says, “That was the most painless port access, (IV start, or injection) I’ve ever had.” I can never promise a patient I won’t hurt them, but when I don’t, it makes my day. I strive for a gentle hand. 

In art the term “hand” describes the workmanship of an artist, and nurses often tell patients going to surgery, “You’re in good hands,” referring to a surgeon’s skill with a scalpel. But “hand” refers to the way we treat people too.

Whether educating patients about chemotherapy and radiation regimens, explaining home medication administration, or simply discussing current events, it’s important to remember that even the most optimistic patient is emotionally fragile. Tone of voice, the abruptness of an encounter, and our choice of words all contribute to the “hand” we touch them with emotionally. Too heavy of a conversational hand can pierce a patient’s soul as painfully as any needle or scalpel.

I forgot this during a shift memorable for both the number and acuity of its patients. Everyone had complex questions about their care. I enjoy patient education; however, this shift I was doing so much that I began pulling information from my knowledge base as if it were files from a computer. By this, I mean remotely. I wasn’t paying attention to hand, my personal touch.

During the course of an assessment, a patient revealed she wasn’t taking a prescribed home medication because of its side effects. The patient also reported a symptom, which I recognized was caused by the discontinuation of the home medication she’d just mentioned, and I just sort of blurted out my observation. Immediately, I regretted my heavy-handedness as I saw this otherwise optimistic patient crumble nearly to the point of tears. I had carelessly broken a tender reed.

Needing to make amends, I sat on the rolly stool, and I apologized. I complimented her involvement in her care, and her ability to sense changes in her body. I also apologized for abruptly responding to the discontinuation of her medication. I regained my gently touch, she forgave me, and we devised with a care plan.

I hope I made up careless hand. I had hurt her as if I’d jabbed her with a needle.

Alopecia And The Pirate

As I write this post, some scientists are searching for ways to prevent male baldness through genetic manipulation. Others are conducting similar research to cure cancer. Is hair really as significant a part of our identity as we are sold to believe?

My hair began falling out the 14th day after the first chemotherapy infusion. In preparation, I bought a wig, styled and colored the same as my real hair. Like a feral animal, it perched on its stand, awaiting an opportunity.

When I saw the first ungodly huge handful of fallen hair I was too stunned to cry. Instead, I mumbled, “F***,” repeatedly, like a demented chicken.

It didn’t fall out all at once. Each morning for a week, I’d step out of the shower holding gobs of hair in my hands to prevent clogging the drain. After blow-drying what was left on my head, I’d take a pair of manicure scissors, like a naughty three-year-old, and try to even it out and disguise the bald patches. When I no longer could, a coworker’s husband shaved my head while she collected the locks, tying them into small bundles with blue satin ribbons. Image

After a time, I stopped wearing the wig. I preferred to cover my baldness with a red bandana, pirate style.

It was summertime, and I was at downtown Portland’s Pioneer Square, when a young man wearing a pirate’s black hat, white blouse with buckskin laces, black britches, and boots approached me. He clutched an authentic-looking sword. This was years before Johnny Depp made pirates sexy. Despite fatigue and chemo brain, I understood: “Oh, no, this guy sees my bandana. Pirate guy thinks he’s found pirate girl.” There was no place to run.

He spoke to me. “Ahoy! Me beauty, how art thee this fine afternoon?”

“I art fine, thanks,” I replied. “Why are you dressed like a pirate? Is that sword real?”

“Aye.”

He belonged to a club, of sorts, of people who dress like pirates and act out sword fights. I puzzled over what he wanted until he reached into his blouse and pulled up a goddess pendant dangling from a leather thong around his neck. He brought the goddess to his lips, kissed it, and then pointed to the carved turquoise goddess I had worn on a silver chain since my diagnosis.

“My fair Muse hails from Hungary, where she symbolized the female spirit of war and led her people to victory. I see you wear the Goddess yourself.” Doffing his hat, he bowed before swaggering back into the crowd.

He had approached because of the necklace, not the bandana. He hadn’t noticed that I was bald — or had he? Did I just have an encounter with an eccentric or a very kind man dressed as a pirate offering encouragement?

He left me smiling. There is more to each of us than what we look like.

This post was originally published by TheONC.

Rethinking The Paradigm

A friend and I sat at a wine bar. Over a glass of Pinot Noir, the topic of blogging came up. I

photo by jparadisi

photo by jparadisi

told her I was writing a post about the need to teach nurses how to talk to patients about dying.

She said, “Oh, you can’t talk about that all in one conversation. You have to talk about things like that in short, repeated conversations. It’s too much for someone to take in all at once.”

My friend is a diabetic educator, and she is better prepared to discuss life-changing illness with her clients than most nurses are to talk to theirs. Talking about the life-threatening aspects of diabetes is in her job description. Therefore, she’s been educated to do it.

Unlike clinical educators, nurses are hired for what we do to patients, not for talking to them. Although documenting patient education is part of our job description, it doesn’t carry the same weight of importance as, for instance, administering chemotherapy. Assuring that nurses and physicians are competent to discuss dying with patients is not a priority in health care delivery.

What if nurses and physicians were taught and supported in the necessary skills to bring the process of dying the same respect given to the process of giving birth?

Envision patients, physicians, nurses, social service workers, and spiritual care, working together, creating the same level of compassion and purpose for dying that parents, midwives, nurses, and obstetricians have created for childbirth.

If education about childbirth empowers expectant mothers in labor, might not education about what to expect at death equip dying patients with a sense of control, lessening their fear and pain? What might these patients plan, given small conversations of education, over an adequate amount of time? Would they create personal soundtrack CDs of music? Choose poetry for loved ones to read? Decorate their rooms with art to view as their vision dims? Lie in beds wide enough so loved ones can hold them?

As it stands, we burden hospice nurses with guiding patients and families, who do not know what to expect, through the entire dying process. When there is not enough time, patients go without the necessary knowledge to find personal meaning in this eventual and unavoidable passage.