patient stories


Patients frustrate me. I can get really frustrated, even to the point where I recognize it’s affecting how I deliver care. Already as a senior in nursing school at my final clinical, I was learning how truly frustrating patients can be.

Gayle was a middle-aged woman who was quite healthy for her age. She messed up a knee from years of being overweight, and it required surgical repair. I got Gayle straight out of surgery in the PACU (recovery room).

This woman was maddening. I could not get her to use the pain scale. She would not calm down. This patient was a mixture of pain, anxiety, and pride. Gayle said she refused to tell her family she was having surgery, so she would have no one but hospital staff to keep her company throughout her stay. She asked about how she should feel every other minute. Gayle constantly said she did not want to be a baby when she was clearly in pain.

On top of all of that, her anesthetic was still on board, so Gayle would ask me the same questions…right after I had answered them. I was doing my best not to get irritated, but I could tell my voice was straining every time I answered her questions.

One of the nurses popped in to tell me that a priest was here to see her. Visitors are rarely allowed back in the recovery room, but hey, I thought he could give me a break from Gayle’s anxiety. I said sure, send in the man.

I wanted to leave to give them some privacy, but patients need to be monitored closely in the PACU, as in the nurse needs to be right next to you closely. I had to stay.

The experience was a blessing.

Gayle and the young priest talked for about 45 minutes, talking about the priest’s life and Gayle’s life, about Gayle’s regrets, about the her fears and prides. At the end, the priest anointed her with oil in a ritual called the Anointing of the Sick. Gayle was so at ease that her oxygen saturation was dipping to a level where the alarms went off. And, to my selfish relief, not asking me a million questions.

After the priest left, Gayle was able to sleep for the first time since she had arrived. Her blood pressure fell by 20 points (which is pretty significant). She said her pain was OK. She was calm. Gayle was thinking about letting her family know she was in the hospital. Something in her eyes changed. I smiled, my faith strengthened in Gayle’s moment of weakness.

You can pick this experience apart, saying the smell of the oils calmed her, the conversation soothed her, the anesthetics made her breathe at a lower rate, or the pain medication finally kicked in.  A combination of any of those could be true, but does that mean the spiritual experience for Gayle is any less true?

I really used to struggle with science and faith, thinking that for either to be valid, they had to be two separate entities. Not so much. As St. Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”

The two need each other like tango partners. The dance can be as strained or as harmonious as you make it. From my experience, everything in health care works better when its partners work together harmoniously.

Regardless of who or what you believe in, every person has spiritual needs. This is not to say everyone needs to have a spiritual life, but everyone desires something beyond themselves. Spiritual needs encompass our basic human desire for connection and meaning.

Airway, breathing, circulation. ABC.

“Remember the basics,” a preceptor taught me. “Airway, breathing, circulation. ABC. Everything else comes second.”

Airway, breathing, circulation. ABC.

This method was taught in basic life support (BLS) classes all the way up to the most advanced, life-saving classes. The order changes depending on the class to CAB, but the thought remains the same: remember the essentials. Before anything else, remember the basics: Airway, Breathing, Circulation. ABC.

When it comes to spiritual care, I’ve learned to do the same. Always Be Compassionate. ABC.

Yes, we can debate about the most particular differences between different faiths and denominations. Yes, we can debate the probability of an omnipotent God. Yes, we can debate morality. But no, we cannot do any of those things until we have our basic spiritual ABCs in place: always be compassionate.

Everything else starts from here.

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