It was my first time sitting in a hospital room as the family member instead of as the nurse. My grandma had been admitted to an observation room for chest pain, and I was immediately struck by how boring everything was. A cinder block wall obscured most of her window, and the volume on the TV was stuck at a low growl. I always love getting to spend time with my grandma, but it was hard to ignore the heavy silence, ugly blue wallpaper, and sterile smell that weighed down on both of us. I was excited to talk to her nurse, but she hurried out before I had a chance to say anything. I couldn’t blame her. I know how busy nurses are, but I still felt a little disappointed. I wanted something to slice the boredom.
After making sure my grandma was settled in for the evening, I headed off to the opposite side of the hospital. I’m a night-shift nurse in the ICU, and “boring” is not a word I would use to describe my job. Between complex trauma patients and code blues, I’m on my toes for most of the shift. As I made my way to my unit, I wondered if my patients and their family members feel as bored as I did. Probably. I felt a wave of guilt pass over me. I had never really thought about it.
Boredom and guilt became distant memories as soon as I set foot in my unit. The day-shift nurse gave me an apologetic smile. Never a good sign. I would be admitting a new patient at the very beginning of the shift. “It should be an easy assignment,” I was told reassuringly. I dashed into my other patient’s room to try and get as much completed in there before the new patient arrived. That patient may have been bored or lonely sitting there in his room by himself. I didn’t have time to ask.
The reason I was told my new patient should make an “easy assignment” is because there wasn’t much wrong with her physically. She had attempted suicide a few hours ago but was found before any permanent bodily damage could be done. “Physically she might be okay, but mentally. . . .” I thought to myself as I prepared her room. As standard practice, all suicide patients are admitted into an ICU, so any object that might be dangerous must be removed from the room. It was left even more stark and bare than usual. My mind drifted back to how ugly and sterile I found my grandma’s room earlier that day. I heard the wheels of a hospital bed rolling down the hallway. I was a little nervous. I know how to care for someone’s body. I can piece back together a body that has been through a car accident or brain surgery or a nasty fall. But do I know how to care for someone’s mind?
The girl was a stark contrast from my usual patient. For starters, she could breathe, walk, and talk. She was also just a few years younger than me though most of my patients are several decades older. I still greeted her with my usual chipper introduction, but I wondered if she found me annoying. I imagined she had no interest in talking to some random nurse moments after trying to end her own life. I take great care to look after my patients emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, but this situation felt different. I knew I had to ask her if she was still having thoughts of suicide, but I was dreading the question. What should my tone of voice be? Do I look her in the eye while I ask? I don’t remember what I ended up doing, but I do remember her muffled response: “Kind of.”
“Can I take a bath?” she asked tentatively. She was not permitted to be left alone and the tangle of EKG cords snaking across her chest and arms had to stay in place. I quickly assembled the crème de la crème of bath supplies in the hopes that it would give her some comfort. I filled up one of the pink plastic buckets with water from the coffee machine and added a few squeezes of baby shampoo. Coffee machine water guarantees a hot bath and baby shampoo makes the best bubbles. Topping it off with some shaving cream will leave the entire room smelling fresh.
It’s not uncommon for patients to feel awkward while taking a bath in front of a nurse, so I preoccupied myself with making a miniature snowman out of shaving cream. “Isn’t that a waste of supplies?” she asked. “I won’t tell if you won’t,” I whispered as the misshapen snowman wobbled in my palms. She smiled for the first time that evening and scooped up a handful of bubbles. Blowing them toward me, we both giggled as they danced across the floor.
She was my patient for the next few nights, and I remained diligent as her nurse. But we also showed each other photos of our dogs and complained about the smell of the broccoli being served and laughed about the floppy yellow hospital socks. I brought in sheets of paper and some crayons, and we tried our best to sign our names in fancy calligraphy. I explained how her heartbeat created the spikey green lines on the monitor, and she told me about an English literature class she was taking.
I don’t always know what the right thing is to say to someone who just attempted suicide. But what I do know is that hospital rooms are boring and lonely and scary. I also know that sometimes we all just want to be seen. I wasn’t the nurse, and she wasn’t the patient. We were just two girls laughing together.
2019 Hope Babette Tang Humanism in Healthcare Essay Contest
The Arnold P. Gold Foundation holds an annual essay contest to encourage medical and nursing students to reflect on their experiences and engage in narrative writing. The contest began in 1999 focused on medical students and expanded to include nursing students in 2018. Students are asked to respond to a specific prompt in a 1,000-word essay.
For the 2019 contest, students were asked to reflect on the following quote and share an experience in which they or their health care team engaged compassionately and respectfully with a patient to help them feel accepted and seen.
I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself. —Maya Angelou
More than 300 essays were submitted. A distinguished panel of judges, ranging from esteemed medical professionals to notable authors, reviewed the submissions. Three winning essays from medical students and 3 winning essays from nursing students were selected, along with 10 honorable mentions. The winning essays will be published in consecutive issues of Academic Medicine and the Journal of Professional Nursing in the fall/winter of 2019.
The contest is named for Hope Babette Tang-Goodwin, MD, who was an assistant professor of pediatrics. Her approach to medicine combined a boundless enthusiasm for her work, intellectual rigor, and deep compassion for her patients. She was an exemplar of humanism in medicine.
The Arnold P. Gold Foundation infuses the human connection into health care. The nonprofit organization engages schools, health systems, companies, and individual clinicians in the joy and meaning of humanistic health care, so that they have the strength and knowledge to ensure that patients and families are partners in collaborative, compassionate, and scientifically excellent care.