The art of compassion
Friday, August 07, 2015
Starting out in the neonatal intensive care unit, the excitement for me was the adrenaline rush that came from caring for very sick patients, and figuring out what to do as quickly as possible to help "cure" the child. That still held true for my entire ICU career, but as time moved on, and I witnessed many sick patients and grieving families, it became clear to me that compassion was a consistent and integral part of my day.
Compassion was important not only for my patient, but also for the family, my colleagues and myself. It was just as important to perform a procedure, as it was to hold a parent's hand, sit with a family in the quiet moments, offer to take another's shift if he or she needed to go home early or give myself the treat of having a massage after a long day at work. These are all examples of compassion.
There are many definitions of compassion; to put yourself in another's shoes, to have empathy for, to care about, to have concern for others' suffering, and so on.
Sometimes you are brought to your knees to truly "experience" compassion, rather than intellectualize this concept. This "feeling" or experience can be a defining moment in your life. After you have felt this kind of emotion, you will never be the same again.
You cannot return to the life that you may have had when you were able to gloss over things, the veil is lifted, the emotions become more transparent and the feeling of truly being "alive" is front and center.
A patient, early in my career, was diagnosed with Down syndrome and several additional anomalies.
He had an amazingly supportive and involved family. He was brought to the brink of death a few times, survived and ultimately passed away quietly in the arms of his parents.
As I bear witness to that event, my heart was broken wide open for the family. In the midst of the death of their son, the family embraced us, the healthcare professionals. They thanked us for caring for their son through the long days and nights, the many plans of care, the CPR that was performed and the strength to do it day after day, week after week and month after month.
It was at that moment that I experienced not only "healing," rather than "curing," but the beautiful art of compassion. The family was giving us compassion!
I had learned about "grief" and the stages and what to do in terms of a clinical sense in school. I had not learned, nor experienced, what it was like to sit with a family during the death of their child. I had not learned that a cure was not always the best-case scenario. I had not learned that as a nurse, I could receive compassion from a patient's family.
These were all surprises from allowing myself to be in the moments with this grieving family.
As I guide graduate healthcare students today at a senior center, the very opposite arena of where I started my career, I tell them that procedures are important. Technology has given us a gift in medicine; however, not to underestimate the art of compassion.
Compassionate care, compassionate conversation and compassionate connections are the experiences that we look back on as we reflect.
While we could not progress without technology, the art of compassion is what links us together as we journey through health challenges. I received a card from that family after the death of their son, that said, "Thanks for saving our lives." Though I was not able to sustain their son's life, they experienced healing compassion and I am honored to say I experienced the same.
As a "seasoned" nurse, I can tell you that I learned the most about compassion through my experiences, standing side by side with another human being. Open yourself up to it, and you will never be the same.
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