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The stories that never get told: Presence

Author(s): Kathleen Bartholomew, RN, MN

“He isn’t dead yet?” the neuro doctor mumbled as he opened the chart. His 82-year-old patient had been put on comfort care four days earlier.  However, the patient showed no signs of weakening, continuing to talk expressively to himself, agitated and cursing. The nurse requested something to help make him calmer.

Just then his family walked onto the unit: wife, son and daughter, dressed like Nordstrom mannequins. The wife, a distinguished woman, apologized profusely saying, “He has never cursed a day in his life. We don’t understand. He was always such an upright and dignified man!”  They appeared embarrassed as well as confused.

But instead of giving her patient the sedative, the nurse had another plan. “Why don’t you all grab a coffee while I give your husband and father a bath?” she suggested to the family. “I was just about to start.”

Her plan was to listen intently to every word of her patient’s incoherent babble while bathing him to try and solve the puzzling behavior. Even if he was confused, he was in great distress.  The rest of us covered for her other patients so that she could dedicate the time uninterrupted.

By the time she finished, each puzzle piece of a word fit together to make a story. He was only 19 years old and in the Navy when his buddies cajoled him to join them for a night at the brothel – and now, he was fighting death because he feared that he was going to go to hell. “No hope…bad idea….so sorry….only time…burn in hell”, he mumbled.

Her comforting words were the very salve he needed – not a pill. This nurse reassured a supposedly totally incoherent patient that she was certain that his life spoke volumes, and that this short paragraph in his story was not what mattered. For the first time in four days he lay still and calm in the bed.

The family returned exclaiming, ‘What did you do? He is so peaceful.’  But his nurse just smiled, keeping the story to herself. He died peacefully before the end of the shift with his family by his side.

Share your stories in the Year of the Nurse so that we can continue to uplift and inspire each other!

“Our very habit of treating the body as a machine, whose muscles are like pulleys and its organs engines, forces its poetry underground, so that we experience the body as an instrument and see its poetics only in illness.”  – Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

Kathleen Bartholomew, RN, MN, is an internationally recognized patient safety and health culture expert. Kathleen has spoken on leadership, communication, patient safety, and peer relationships to hospital executives and nurse leaders for twenty years.

All of her books come from her passion to understand the stories of nurses.  Her books, “Ending Nurse to Nurse Hostility” and “Speak Your Truth” illuminate our relationships with our peers and physician partners.  She is also co-author of “The Dauntless Nurse” which was written as a communication confidence builder.

Kathleen is also a guest Op Ed writer to the Seattle Times and has been interviewed twice on NPR’s “People’s Pharmacy”. Her Tedx Talk calls for changing our belief system from a hierarchy to equality in order to keep our patients safe – and also explains how disaster thrust her into ‘the best profession ever’.

You can also find more information about Kathleen on her websiteTwitter, and Facebook

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