In gathering information for the Committee on the Future of Nursing 2030, the National Academy of Medicine held a series of town hall meetings over the summer, with the final meeting held in August in Seattle. One of the speakers was Tim Cunningham, corporate director of patient and family centered care at Emory Healthcare. He shared with the audience that he was a professional clown before he became a nurse and would often visit children in hospitals. He told the story of a visit to one critically ill child who was intubated and on a ventilator. The boy's parents were uncertain about his visit because the boy was so ill but were surprised and delighted when the child laughed. The child survived his illness, and years later his mother wrote to Cunningham to say that what her son remembers about the hospitalization, despite all the tubes and treatments he had to endure, is that a clown came to visit him!
Cunningham's story reminded me of Dan Heath's presentation at the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses' meeting last May. Heath's book, The Power of Moments, coauthored with his brother Chip, explores why some events and experiences can leave a lasting impression, supersede other memories, and even alter the trajectory of our lives. The Heaths say there are four elements, either singularly or together, that can give rise to these moments: elevation (moments that become extraordinary); insight (sudden clarity or surprising realization about a situation); pride (feeling of being at one's best); and lastly, connection (a remarkable or memorable encounter).
The authors explain that rather than leave these “aha” moments to chance, we should look to create them. A nurse who smuggles an older adult's beloved pet into the hospital, staff that organize a daughter's wedding in the hospital so a terminally ill parent can attend, or a nurse who brings a bowl of snow to an ill child who can't go outside to play are examples of actions that are meaningful to the patients as well as to the staff. (Our monthly Reflections column contains many such stories.)
But it's not just “out of the ordinary” events like these that may be meaningful to a patient or family. What we as nurses may consider a passing moment in the course of our day—a short exchange with a family member, a few words of encouragement to a patient—might very well be a pivotal life event. Since we interact with people in what are often major life events, it's understandable that many of our interactions can have a profound effect. As a result, we must choose our words—and actions—carefully.
When I worked in outpatient oncology, I would wait for the blood test results to tell patients if they were able to receive chemotherapy that day. Several patients told me they could tell what their results were by the way I walked toward them: when the results were good, I made eye contact as soon as I entered the room or walked purposefully toward them. When results were disappointing, I walked more slowly without the same direct gaze.
Most of us have probably had connections that turned out to be life changing. I know my career at AJN came about because of a chance meeting at a conference. It was a conference I was reluctant to attend. I had small children and getting organized to go out of town took a herculean effort. But had I not attended that meeting, where I met then AJN editor Thelma Schorr, my career would have taken a totally different path. There have been other times when putting aside my lukewarm feelings for attending an event was rewarded by wonderful opportunities and relationships with colleagues who've become friends.
One such time was grabbing coffee with a fellow student in one of my graduate school classes. We later worked together as clinical specialists in a community hospital but drifted apart as we became involved in other careers and raising our families. We reconnected years later when she became a freelance writer for AJN, and then our news director. For the last 10 years, Gail Pfeifer has coordinated and managed the assignments of the many freelance journalists who write the In the News column, garnering several awards for AJN in the process. Now she's moving on. I will miss our monthly phone meetings and her insights and contributions to AJN. But if past is prologue, I have a feeling our paths will cross again.