“You are not a mess. You are a feely person in a messy world.” Glennon Doyle Melton
Nursing education is a whole heck of a lot more about hard sciences than it is about the humanities. I encountered no art of nursing. In high school, I had been a stellar student in English and social studies. The heavy realities of statistics, anatomy and pharmacology nearly suffocated me in university. Nursing is tough in all ways and I am not.
I had hopeless technical skills, wincing before administering an injection, being ordered out of the OR by a surgeon before I passed out on the sterile field. I had to take a walk around the hospital for fresh air after seeing a tracheotomy being changed on an elderly gentleman. Bodily fluids made me queasy and there were a lot of bodily fluids. A lot. I didn’t have the stomach for nursing.
But it was more than even that. My heart bled all over my sleeve. I could feel that pain that others could feel, to the point of experiencing physical signs of empathy. I was squeamish to inflict pain or watch pain being administered to others, even for good reasons. I irrationally thought, ‘that must hurt so much’ as the surgeon cut into anesthetized patients. I was unable to turn that part of myself off. Nobody talked about this in nursing school, so I thought I was weak, fragile and the only one.
The truth is that good clinicians don’t turn themselves off. They have compassion for themselves at the same time they have compassion for others. They allow themselves to feel the feelings instead of shoving their emotions into dark compartments. When feelings are shoved away, the pain always resurfaces, often in most unhealthy ways.
“I’ve come to believe that it’s psychologically and spiritually damaging for a person not to be forcibly reminded of all the suffering in the world.” Chris Adrian
Health environments are filled with patients who are suffering. Health care professionals are not taught how to turn towards this suffering, so they often turn away instead. More suffering occurs when patient suffering is dismissed and minimized. This is how a vicious cycle is formed. Health care experiences can end up causing more trauma than the actual condition itself.
I still have no idea how my nursing classmates figured out how to grow a ‘thick skin’ when witnessing or administrating painful procedures to patients. How I dearly wish my nursing instructors had spoken to us about how to help patients while taking care of ourselves. All the way through my hospital rotations, I always felt like my skin was peeled off. Nobody showed me how to feel compassion but not feel pain for patients.
I might have stayed in nursing if I had a mentor explain this to me. I needed to be taught how to process my own emotions around bearing witness to suffering. I wonder how many sensitive beings drop out of health care because of this lack of realization that it is okay to feel feelings at work. I thought I had to distance myself from patients so I could be protected from them. I was a fragile flower and I felt too much at every turn. At the age of 19, after having frequently been told I was overly sensitive, I thought I was deeply flawed. Today I know my sensitivity is a gift.
In my dreams, hospitals are healing environments for both patients and the people who work there. The concept of ‘this is hard but important work’ is discussed openly at reflective practice sessions together with patients, families and staff members. Debriefs, check-ins and space for listening is built into the workday.
This means that the notion of ‘what counts is counted’ would need to be adjusted. Listening would count. Holding someone’s hand would count. Offering a hug would count. Care would be administered human being to human being, not professional to patient. For once we break down the walls between roles and acknowledge that we are all human, well that’s the place where compassion is born.
This is an extract from Sue Robins book Bird’s Eye View calling for a revolution in health care that is sparked by meaningful partnerships with patients. Sue will launch the book at Gathering of Kindness—an annual conference founded by Dumbo Feather alumni Catherine Crock about bringing more empathy and compassion into healthcare. Gathering of Kindness takes place on 14 November in Melbourne, find out more.