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The Essence of Nursing Care

Hassmiller, Susan B. PhD, RN, FAAN

AJN, American Journal of Nursing: May 2017 - Volume 117 - Issue 5 - p 7
doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000516250.61687.63
Guest Editorial

Frontline nurses are central to ensuring the patient experience is positive and dignified.

Susan B. Hassmiller is director of the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action and senior adviser for nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ. Contact author: shassmi@rwjf.org.

My life changed forever on Sunday, September 25, 2016, at 11:09 am. That's when I learned that Bob, my best friend and husband of 37 years, lay paralyzed in the trauma unit of a nearby hospital, having taken a hard fall from his bicycle. I asked to speak to him but was told he couldn't talk to me. I feared the worst, and over the next 10 days, the worst happened over and over again. I promised him, as we had always promised each other, that I would never leave him and that we would get through his accident together. Sadly, it was not to be. On October 4, Bob succumbed to septic shock.

During those 10 brutal days, I learned anew the crucial role that nurses play in caregiving and compassion. Three nurses stood out in particular. The first hugged me, and told me how much she cared and how she wished she could take away my pain. She stressed how wonderful Bob was and how lucky he was to have me taking care of him. This nurse e-mailed me after his passing. She said that, though she'd never reached out to a family member before, she felt compelled to contact me. She gave me words of hope and encouragement and said she admired my husband's bravery, his confidence under horrendous circumstances, and his love for me. I was so moved that I read her words at Bob's memorial service. The second nurse—an academic health system leader—was someone I knew a little, but came to know a lot. During this difficult time, she hardly left my side, meeting our every need, and became my coadvocate when I was too weak to advocate on my own. The third, a staff nurse, helped me move my 6 ft 4 in, 240-lb husband so I could lie next to him after my family and I decided to let him go. She stayed well beyond her shift to help me turn off Bob's machines. She also told me how beautiful the pictures were in the album that I kept beside his bed and what a beautiful and loving couple we were.

These nurses lifted me up when I struggled to stand. They took time to understand who Bob and I were before his accident. They didn't reduce us to a dying man and his grief-stricken wife—they saw us as human beings with full lives, loved ones, and passions. They taught me that the best nurses demonstrate care and compassion every day when they start their shift, and view their patients as whole human beings with dignity—that's the essence of who nurses are and what we celebrate during Nurses Week. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” Men and women choose to be nurses because they want to help others at their most vulnerable. Caring must remain at the forefront of nursing, even on days when technology, paperwork, and staffing ratios prove overwhelming.

My employer, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is working to build a Culture of Health in America. Our goal is to enable every person to live the healthiest life possible. That goal can feel elusive to critical care, palliative care, and hospice nurses. The nurses who took care of Bob and me certainly weren't helping him lead a healthier life. However, embedded in building a Culture of Health is the importance of caregiving, consumer engagement, and making sure all people receive care when and where they need it. Consumers have positive patient experiences when they believe the health system is easy to access and navigate; their needs are being met; and, importantly, they are being listened to and respected, and can contribute to decisions related to their own care. Frontline nurses, as the health professionals who spend the most time with patients and their families, are central to ensuring that the patient experience is a positive and dignified one.

The nurses who cared for Bob and me helped me survive the most traumatic experience of my life, and they epitomize the essence of caregiving. Given the circumstances, they did everything they could for us. This year for Nurses Week, I want to honor those nurses. Thank you for your care and compassion, and thank you for seeing the full lives that Bob and I shared. Your care was a gift.

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