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A Nurse’s Journey of Empathy and Compassion

By: Peter Caprioli, MSN, CRNP

It was my first year as a nurse in a suburban Intensive Care unit. I worked the night shift and had an elderly female patient that was very ill with cancer, I don’t remember her name, but let’s call her Carol. My memory of her has persisted for two reasons, she had a calm that was unique for an ICU, and she gave me some insights into life, a new perspective. Truthfully, she faded from my memory until recently, all of the recent suffering, dying, violence, and disease have made me reflect on a few past experiences and be hopeful for the future. This is where Carol comes in.

In an ICU, the nurses are in and out of the patient’s room quite frequently. So an alert and oriented patient provides a lot of opportunity for conversations, and getting to know the patient. I remember Carol wouldn’t admit to being in pain, she seemed to not want to talk about her illness or how she felt. I took her lead and started asking about her life, job, family, education, and so on, small talk.

She and her now deceased husband owned a popular local restaurant, and sold it when they were in their 40s, about 20 years after starting it. She reflected on this with me and said it was one of the best decisions of her life. Walking away from something she worked so hard for and sacrificed for was difficult, but she was able to spend more time with her young children and family. There was an adjustment period, it felt like grieving in a way, to lose something you work so hard for and was so engrained in their daily lives.

I was surprised to hear that she didn’t regret selling the restaurant, she spoke of it with such energy and happiness. Then she told me about going to soccer and baseball games with her kids. Watching them play, fall down, get up and keep playing. Watching them win, succeed, feel happiness, joy, and the pain of losing. Seeing them stumble and get up to keep going was a proud moment. Being there to experience life with them was far greater than any day in the kitchen at the restaurant. What I saw as happiness when she talked about her restaurant was nothing compared to the look in her eyes as she told me about her family. Teaching her son and daughter to cook, watching them create a meal, share it with others, and the confidence and social skills that helped them develop. I was amazed to see the joy in her eyes, even 30 or 40 years later, as she told me about actually being present with her husband and family to see her children grow, explore, and develop.

As a new nurse, 26 years old or so, this was a part of life I hadn’t paid much attention to. I was focused on school, jobs, work, advancement, and friends. Life was too busy for me to look at it this way, I just didn’t have the time, or so I thought. I knew I wanted that level of connection, presence, and enjoyment. There would always be more time for that later on.

After talking to Carol, I wanted to simplify my life. I quit my part time job and started traveling with my wife. I spent more time with family, and actually listened to people during conversations, I placed a value on that connection. This lasted for a while, but eventually it faded, and was a lost memory and lost way of living. Until about a month ago, I was talking with my wife about life after the pandemic passes, how life will be, how will society change and what will it look like? I remembered Carol and I know what I want for me and my family. I now have 2 amazing kids, I want to be there when they win, lose, fall down and get hurt, then get up and keep going. I want to be there when they make something for others and build a sense of pride, value, and accomplishment. See the happiness, joy, sadness, and even anger in their eyes. I want to be there, help them through it, and watch them grow. A recent increase in time at home has provided this for me and I see the value in myself and my family. This is the life I want and in many ways it makes me hopeful for the future.

I never did tell Carol the impact she had on me, never had the chance. As the fog of the pandemic seems to be slowly clearing, I don’t want to forget Carol and her story again. Stay at home orders have made more family time, and I don’t want to lose that, I don’t want to go back to my old way of experiencing my children’s lives through a story someone else tells me, I will be there for it.

The views and opinions expressed by Perspectives contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

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