Kathy Schoonover-Shoffner, PhD, RN, serves as editor of JCN and with Nurses Christian Fellowship USA, and works per diem as a staff nurse. She lives in Wichita, Kansas with her husband and teens and is active in a local church.
I hope you'll take the time to read "The Place of Dignity in Everyday Ethics" by Donal O'Mathúna (pp. 12–18) in this issue. The article has already helped me.
Recently I admitted a patient whose circumstances were as undignified as I've ever encountered. Unkempt, smelly, severely psychotic, in significant cardiopulmonary distress, morbidly obese, on multiple home meds; the patient was a mess. Despite this patient's condition (O2 saturation of 91% on oxygen), the patient smoked a pack or more of cigarettes a day. Already pressured with a full load of other needy patients, I took a deep breath, reminded myself to stay calm, and thought through the tasks at hand trying to prioritize what to do first. O'Mathúna suggests that "to act with dignity is to find ways to promote the inherent dignity of whomever we find facing us" and points out the challenge "is to find ways to do this with everyone around us" (p. 18). This was never truer than in my situation at that moment. I looked at my admission and realized I needed Divine help. As I proceeded with assessing the patient, removing dirty clothes, touching oily, sweaty skin, smelling unpleasant odors, trying to elicit information, listening to delayed, nonsensical responses, I kept asking God to help me see this person as he did.
Consistently treating patients with dignity is akin to the biblical command to "love one another" (John 15:12–17). In theory and from a distance, the idea sounds great. But in reality and practice, it's not easy. When others rub me the wrong way, offend me, are particularly needy or unpleasant, loving them the way Christ commands does not come naturally. I don't feel like loving them as Jesus intends, and sadly, sometimes I don't. It's the same with human dignity. Sometimes it's easy to treat patients with dignity, especially when their circumstances seem more dignified such as when their health problem isn't their fault, they are clean, appreciative, responsive, intelligent, and so on.
Through the long hours of that shift obtaining orders, sorting out home meds, giving antipsychotics, stat furosemide, and respiratory therapy treatments (all while trying to support two other patients in crisis), I thought about O'Mathúna's words regarding our struggle to treat others with the dignity they deserve, and that as we recognize our own need for grace and forgiveness, we are driven to Christ in humility and dependence. My mind wandered to things I struggle with... overeating, a tongue that isn't always appropriate, blatantly ignoring other's needs. It occurred to me I wasn't too different from my patients, yet God had extended me grace and forgiveness; despite my disobedience God continues to patiently love me. I was humbled when at the end of the shift my new admission, breathing easier and with clearer mind, apologized for being "so much trouble" and thanked me for my help.
What helps us consistently treat patients, colleagues, and others with dignity? O'Mathúna explains the basis for human dignity and our need to depend on and be firmly grounded in God's grace and power. How do we do that? In addition to regular Bible study, worship, and prayer, saturate your mind and heart with the stories of Jesus. Read the Gospels again and again, learning from the One who exemplifies what it means to treat others with the highest dignity. Discovering the nuances of Christ's life, the simple and profound ways he loved others, the union he had with God the Father; imprinting these on our lives will help us see and treat others as he does. And when we find ourselves in places where it is hard to extend dignity, we can pray to the God who knows our weaknesses and exactly how to help us (Hebrews 4:14–16).
In this issue of JCN you can find moving real-world examples of what it means to treat others with dignity. Read Maureen Reeves Horsley's story of tenaciously caring for a hopeless patient (pp. 21–23) and Allie Brown's discussion of developing endurance to deal with work stresses in a Christ-like manner (pp. 38–39). Discover how retired academic nurse leaders were able to treat faculty and students with dignity over time and the difference it made in their schools in the article by Harriett Coeling, Lenny Chiang-Hanisko, and Mary Thompson (pp. 24–30). Read a student's perspective of nurses who don't treat others with dignity in Student TXT (p. 10).
Treating others with dignity is probably the most crucial nursing intervention we can offer. Jesus knew and lived out this truth during his life on earth. Today, God treats us with the highest honor and dignity when as the LORD Almighty who fills the earth with his glory (Isaiah 6:3), he stoops to our level and comes to us in very personal, recognizable, and intimate ways to invite us to become his children.