May 06, 2017

What 10 Days in the ICU Taught Me About Caregiving

Bob-bedside-facebookDuring 10 brutal days last fall, I learned anew how nurses comfort families who have experienced unexpected trauma. My husband and soul mate, Bob, became paralyzed after a bike fall on the morning of September 25, 2016. He lingered between life and death for the next 10 days until my family and I made the heart-wrenching decision to let him go. I wrote about my experience as Bob’s wife and advocate in this month’s issue of the American Journal of Nursing.

Those 10 days taught me that the best nurses demonstrate care and compassion every day they start their shift, and they view patients and their families as whole human beings with dignity—that’s the essence of who nurses are and what we celebrate during National Nurses Week. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.”  Men and women choose nursing because they want to help others when they are most vulnerable. Caring must remain at the forefront when technology, paperwork, and staffing ratios on any given day can truly overwhelm.

Care must center on the patient’s needs first and foremost. Nurses and doctors should routinely invite family members to advocate for their loved one’s care and to take time to know them as full people with loved ones and passions, especially if patients are unable to advocate for themselves. They should gain an understanding of what is important to the patient and his or her family from the first meeting to the last goodbye. For me, that meant having open visiting hours where we could be together without restrictions, and at the end, not having Bob hooked up to machines to keep him alive indefinitely—something that he told me he would never want.

This Nurses Week, I am grateful to the nurses who cared for my husband and viewed him as a whole person and me as a loving wife and the mother of his children. Thank you for your care and compassion and for your support during the most difficult days of my life, and thank you to all the nurses who truly practice the art of care and compassion in every setting.

Susan B. Hassmiller PhD, RN, FAAN, is senior adviser for nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and director of the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action.