You Never Know, in Nursing

“You never know how you affect people” applies in all areas in life, but it seems to me never more so than in nursing. It applies in so many different ways: to patients, to families, and to other professionals. Our hands do, as the hand-washing posters all tell us, touch many lives. I was reminded yet again today (it’s a small world, you just never know, I should file this away and remember it when I think no one notices what I’m up to…).

I hadn’t been on my first job a month when I had my first lesson in “you never know.” I had taken care of an ICU patient a few nights in a row and talked to the family about withdrawing care, which they did after multiple consults, and I proceeded to take care of him for several more shifts before he died. The room was packed with family, but it was at night, so they were just a lot of shadowy figures to me. Months later I was hustling out of the hospital after a horrible shift in a “make my day, just try it” mood when an approaching nurse said, “Are you Megen?” My response was probably something like “who wants to know?” She burst into tears, threw her arms around me, and said, “my father-in-law was XX. We’ll never forget what good care you took of all of us and him.” I wouldn’t have known her from Adam’s house cat. But she remembered me.

Today I found out that I ended up in my current job because a coworker remembered something I did for a patient in the middle of the night years and years ago. What happened was, the lady went up to the floor from the ER, and her family wasn’t going to be able to get there before she died, and I had told her son she wouldn’t die alone. The floor nurses were having a pizza night, so I went up to the floor and sat with her until she died. I barely remembered it myself, but another nurse noticed. Now, again, years after the fact, she heard of an opening for a hospice case manager, remembered that night, recommended me for the job, and told me about it. You really never know. I would have bet money that no one remembered me trailing through that dark unit and sitting in the shadows holding the thin hand. Almost not even me. But she did, and it has now made a big difference in my life.

The thing is, people notice what we do; that means we are on stage all the time, when you think about it. They notice what we say. Above all, they remember how we make them feel, to paraphrase Maya Angelou slightly. I used to work in corrections, where I literally was on camera all the time. I wonder if that is a good mindset to keep all the time. Would you do anything differently if you knew you might have to watch the tape later?

About Megen Duffy

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Megen Duffy, RN, BA, BSN, CEN, is a practicing nurse, blogger, and contributing editor for the American Journal of Nursing. Megen has practiced in a variety of settings from emergency rooms to prisons.