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This site is for student nurses or nurses starting out. Letters to a Young Nurse are blog posts written like letters to help you find your way and make your journey as a nurse less difficult. 


Patient Lessons

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

There are patients that come into your life for a moment and there are patients who stay with you for your entire career. I have a few of those patients living in the recesses of my brain who I think of often and thank them for the lessons and gifts they brought into my life. As Maya Angelou said, “I may not remember your name, but I will never forget how you made me feel” became my mantra during my nursing career.

One memorable patient was a woman in her 70's in a tiny little hospital in Napa Valley. This woman, whom I will call Grace because she possessed so much of it, was in the hospital for an acute crisis in her treatment of abdominal cancer. Grace rang her call light and asked for assistance with getting to the bathroom. As she stood up I helped her gather her bathrobe around her, tied it and as she walked to the bathroom I put my arm around her back to make sure she would not fall. A light touch on her back that let her know I was there but not so much to take away her independence. Before she reached the bathroom, she turned to me and in a voice just above a whisper asked, "do you know what I miss the most here?" I thought she might talk about food or movies or being with her family. Instead, she surprised me by saying, "being touched". "Most of the staff are afraid to touch ‘us,' the patients. Everyone, including my family, think they are going to break me by touching me, but it is just the opposite. Thank you for your touch". I will never forget those words and they have reminded me often to show kindness during the smallest of moments.

During COVID I had a different experience. As a Hospice nurse I learned how important touch was and before we had to gown, glove, and mask I always touched my patient with a stroke of the hand or a hug. Some of the patients had no one so a touch communicated that they were important to me. One of my patients was actively dying. She was in a coma and only had days to live. Her daughter was in a gown, mask and gloves and sat as far away from the patient as she could get in the tiny room. I sat down on the edge of the bed and talked to her mom and stroked her cheek. When I looked up at her daughter there was a look of incredulous aghast. How dare I touch her mother without gloves in the middle of the COVID pandemic? Nursing, and especially hospice nursing, requires one to put care and compassion ahead of everything. I kept my patients safe but refused to touch them with gloves on. The daughter let her germaphobe mentality stop her from giving her mother the last thing left to give, touch.

Another patient taught me a different lesson, one not so positive but just as important. I was assigned on a Saturday to perform a plasmapheresis for a man in his early thirties who had some kind of autoimmune condition. He had been an active athlete who biked, hiked, ran, swam and did lots of other physical activities to keep him fit and young. I was substituting for another nurse who had been performing these treatments for a few weeks already. I soon discovered that I could not do anything right for him. From the minute I walked in the room he complained and complained and had nothing positive to say about how I was performing the treatment. I thought this was very odd since his regular nurse had nice things to say about him during our weekly report meetings. I realized near the end of the treatment that his attitude had NOTHING to do with me but everything to do with his hatred of change. He was used to the other nurse, felt safe with her and knew nothing of me. We both performed the treatment exactly alike for the same amount of time with the same medication, etc. I could have walked out feeling bad about myself due to his treatment of me. But by paying attention to his words and actions I realized that it was all about him and not about me. That lesson has helped me a great deal when dealing with other patients that were not kind or civil or "patient" with me.

What lesson did you learn from a patient today?

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