Nurses: Telling Our Stories Can Help Others

In art school, I once presented a painting entitled, “Recuerdo (I Remember)” for class critique. The painting was inspired by my experiences as a pediatric intensive care nurse.

The image sparked an enthusiastic discussion among fellow students, during which I answered many questions about the role of nurses. One classmate told the story of her baby’s stillbirth decades earlier. She thanked me for the sensitive rendition, allowing her to share her story.

The instructor said, “You’ve got something here.”

Recuerdo (I Remember) by jparadisi

Recuerdo (I Remember) by jparadisi

Recuerdo appeared in the college’s continuing education catalog the following spring. I was pleased with the painting’s reception, but I realize it could as easily have had the opposite effect: bringing a classmate to tears. Nurses’ stories are proverbial double-edged swords. When wielded thoughtfully, they heal. Even so, they can easily cut someone else to the bone.

I am aware of the power of story when practicing oncology nursing. I was occasionally a patient at the infusion clinic where I now work. My coworkers view the story I bring from the experience favorably. That I can teach tying scarves into attractive head coverings for chemo-induced alopecia is a plus. However, through trial and error, I have gained judiciousness about telling patients I am a cancer survivor.

Here are some self-imposed rules I follow about story telling in the patient care setting:

  • Know your patient’s prognosis. It’s one thing to tell a newly diagnosed stage 1 breast cancer patient that you are a survivor, and that her hair will grow back. It’s something else entirely to say the same thing to a woman with metastatic disease. Tailor the story to the patient’s needs.
  • Talk about cancer treatment in universal terms. Some cancers do not have the same level of news exposure and financial support as breast cancer. Cancer patients should not feel they have a less “special” kind of cancer.
  • If you are not ready to answer questions about your experience, don’t bring it up. It’s natural for patients in similar circumstances to ask what treatment options you chose. If we’re talking about breast cancer, they may ask if you had a mastectomy. If so, one or two? They may ask about sexuality, too. You might be judged for your answers. You have to stay therapeutic anyway.
  • Allow patients to have their own experiences. Cancer treatment is not one size fits all. Do not assume that a patient shares your concerns. Exchanging information is often best done through asking questions rather than offering opinions. Let the patient direct the conversation.
  • Know when to let go. Being a cancer survivor does not make me the world’s best oncology nurse. The experience is simply a tool at my disposal. What’s best for most patients is a team of expert, compassionate caregivers bringing their unique experiences to the conversation.

Have you had a health condition that impacts your approach to nursing — or a coworker who has? What advice would you share?

I Wish I’d Said It

I gather stories the way a sunburned entomologist admires his well-ordered bottles of Costa Rican beetles. Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself. I am often called a “storyteller” by flippant and unadmiring critics. I revel in the title.

-Pat Conroy

Social Media is a Gateway Vice


Street Art, artist unknown. photo: JParadisi 2006

   The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away when they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.

B. Lopez



     I clicked publish on the dashboard and became the narrator of my life.

     As all such stories begin, it was innocent at first. I’d heard it was dangerous, but I thought I could handle myself. I had no understanding of what I had done. So began JParadisi RN’s Blog.

     My naiveté was the result of experiences with other social media platforms. I actually closed my Facebook account once, and Twitter is no more to me than an electronic business card. I use each to announce art shows or accomplishments, and keep up with the same information from my friends. But, blogging, oh blogging, forgive my human foible I am hooked.

     Like most initiates, in the beginning I checked stats obsessively throughout the day, lit by each new hit. Soon, hits weren’t doing it for me anymore. I craved comments and links. I needed to know someone was reading my posts. Like a neighborhood dealer, the Internet is happy to oblige. It makes me wait in anticipation, driving me to write more, write better, whatever it takes to get another link or comment. Ideas for new posts wake me up in the middle of the night. At work, I look for occurrences to divert into insightful posts. Often I see the ideas as images, so I started a second blog, Die Krankenschwester to handle the overflow.

     Of course, I exaggerate to some extent.  Occasionally I am able to shut down my computer for up to 24 hours at a time. Blogging isn’t an addiction. It is a medium of self-expression just like painting. Blogging is equivalent to exhibiting my paintings: a public voice. In one way, it’s superior to a traditional art show, because I don’t have to ask permission to publish my thoughts on a blog. In the art world, hanging paintings in a gallery requires the permission of the gallerist. As a writer, I ask permission from editors to publish my stories. In many areas of our society, the public expression of individual opinions requires someone’s permission. Not inherently bad, gallerists and editors are gatekeepers, deciding who gets in (I am joyful when they pick me).  Blogging bypasses the gatekeepers, allowing anyone to express him or herself freely, as long as they are willing to take on possible consequences.

     It’s no wonder that people homebound with chronic or life-threatening diseases use social media to find support. It’s not surprising so many nurses blog, often anonymously, telling the stories their friends and families often don’t have the stomach to listen to or the background to understand.  I remind myself at social gatherings to say only I am a nurse, when asked what I do for a living. No one wants to hear about critically ill children or oncology at a cocktail party.

     We are social creatures and our need to tell stories is strong.  I cherish the quiet solitude necessary for my creative process, but if meditation was all it’s cracked up to be, solitary confinement wouldn’t be a punishment.