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Drifting in the sea of an emergency department

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A few years ago my wife came home and told me her car was stalling. I knew this was impossible, so I decided to drive her car just to prove her wrong. Trouble is, I proved something else. Her car did stall. It stalled on her and it stalled on me, and the only thing I managed to prove was that I wasn’t listening.

So I took the car to the mechanic and explained the story. But this time the roles were reversed—I became the person not believed. He wouldn’t listen to me. He drove the car and guess what happened…nothing! The car drove fine. So I did what any reasonable person would do: fired the mechanic and got a new car. Problem solved.

Can you relate to this story? Have ever been ignored like this? Whether it’s a mechanic, server, spouse, or a child? How did it make you feel? Does it feel good? Does it frustrate you or make you angry?

How can we talk about empathy, or appreciate someone’s experiences, or share their feelings, if we never take the time to listen to them?

Eleven years ago a 24-year-old man who had numbness in his right hand walked into an urgent care facility. He thought he was going to have a stroke. He was discharged and sent on his way.

A few days later, he went to another facility with the same complaint. No one would listen and he was sent away again. A few days later he went to the emergency department (ED) and now everyone was listening because the numbness had taken over half of his body. He failed the dysphagia screen and tests revealed a small ischemic area in the left parietal lobe.

Why do I tell you this story? Because this is the story of me. This is my story. My experiences as a patient led me back to school to make a change to a new career—a career where I have the ability to impact other’s lives. Because I know what it feels like to be ignored, to be forgotten, and most importantly, what it feels like to be treated like a disease or condition, instead of a person.

In the ED, where I now work, patients cede to the unending journey of testing and waiting, oblivious to time, like a cloud drifting across an open sky. Losing their sense of control while remaining hopeful, they become riddled with fear, plagued by anxiety, and full of despair.

Each journey is as unique as the diagnosis and every emotion is capable of transfiguring into an otherwise unnoticeable expression; a stare that conveys utter fear of the unknown, a tear that represents anger and frustration with the loss of independence, and a hug that says thanks for doing everything you could, but I’m not ready to move on.

Caring for patients in their greatest time of need requires empathy, to share in the journey and care for their needs while they traverse through the unknown, like a boat drifting in the sea.

As an ED nurse, sometimes I feel like a passenger in the boat, barely holding on. Sometimes I feel like I’m steering the boat, and other times I feel like I’m overboard, unable to tread water.

I know what it’s like to come to the ED, seeing the brightly lit hospital sign as a beacon of hope in a sea of despair; surrendering myself to the unknown and waiting impatiently for bad news.

This is my story. You have your own stories and so do our patients. Although we have different experiences, we are all connected through the same basic emotions. I know what it’s like to be scared, to be angry, to be sad, and to want to give up. I also know what it’s like to be happy.

We have all been ignored at some point and know how it makes us feel. By combining listening with an emotional understanding, we can build the foundation for empathy. Together we can build a more impactful relationship with our patients.

I know what it’s like to be ignored and left alone. That’s why I try to take the time to listen to every patient’s story. To take the time to talk to them and treat them as a person and not as a disease or condition.

Can you think of a time in your practice where you ignored someone? Someone you could have helped…or should have helped? And now, what are you going to do to change it?

Eric Keller is an RN in the emergency department at Cleveland Clinic Akron General in Akron, Ohio.

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.

3 Comments.

  • Jane E Bingham RN (Rtd)
    March 21, 2023 10:31 pm

    Thank you Eric! I was in the Nursing field for 50 years. I know the feelings we all have had with so many patients. Compassion.. listening and caring about another soul is what Nursing is all about. It is a great secret to some but if you live long enough you will gather along that path all you need to make a difference in someone’s life. It may not happen every day but you will see it grow and grow with each life you interact with
    Thank you for choosing a profession that has given me a closer walk with God through those lives I had a privilege to serve.

  • Thank you for sharing this story, Eric. Good reminder to treat our patients and colleagues with compassion – like we would like to be treated.

  • I was working as a Woman’s Health NP in a busy clinic. I was taking a history and asked the patient when her last intercourse was and what she was using for contraception. She stated it was two weeks ago and she didn’t use contraception and she was not pregnant. I was busy, and running behind. I was getting annoyed with her, and I persisted along this line of questioning, pointing out there was no way she could know for sure she wasn’t in early pregnancy. She turned red, and finally said very quietly under her breath, that she had sex with another woman. I was so embarrassed, and I was so sorry I had treated her disrespectfully and embarrassed her. I apologized to her profusely, and she was very gracious. I learned to slow down and listen to patients that day, and to try my best to avoid assumptions.

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