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End of Shift: To Hold a Hand

Monday May 19, 2008
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Joy Shiller, RN, BSN, MS, CAPA
(Photo by John Lynch)
Time changes many things, but it never erases the memories of how we were treated early in our nursing careers. Every now and then we are given the opportunity to run into people who had a tremendous impact on us. The only difference is that the tables may have turned and they may need us.

“To hold a hand is to give of one’s heart.” A nurse had written these words in a letter to a nursing journal in the 1960s, expressing the ambivalence she felt about holding the hand of a dying patient. Her first nursing position was under a head nurse who gave her no guidance and who was critical. She became so disillusioned that she almost left nursing. Many years later, a new patient who was alone and dying asked this nurse to hold her hand. Ironically, the patient was the former head nurse who years before had been so unkind to her. Even as a professional she could not put her feelings aside to give of herself to the person who had almost shattered her career.

I have a similar personal story, but this one has a different ending.

When I came to work in the medical ICU at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, I was an inexperienced young nurse. My director welcomed me with open arms. Despite my lack of knowledge at the time, she always treated me with respect and dignity.

She taught me nursing tips that I have passed on to others. So many times she walked through the ICU and stopped to do something special for a patient. I always admired her for that. She was my role model and mentor.

One day, she called an unexpected meeting to inform her staff that she was leaving the hospital. Eventually, I lost track of her whereabouts.

Years later, she arrived on my unit as a patient. We were delighted to see each other. I held her hand as her stretcher was wheeled to the OR. It was the natural thing to do.

Every day while she was in the hospital, I visited her. We shared old stories, our experiences in life, and our mutual love for nursing. One day she told me her surgeon had informed her he was “cautiously optimistic,” but I could see she was still very worried. I remember telling her, “I was cautiously optimistic when you hired me, and I’m still here!” She reached up and hugged me and I hugged her back. At that magical moment, it was evident that the unique bond and respect we had developed so many years previously as a manager and a nurse had never changed.

For the next several years, we exchanged Christmas cards. In the last card I received from her, I noted that her penmanship had changed. In this card she wrote, “We are so blessed to have experienced a kindof nursing new nurses will never know. We also are blessed to know nursing as it is now and to think about what it will be.”

While I was on vacation months later, she was on my mind. When I returned to work, a colleague gave me a copy of her obituary. There were so many beautiful thoughts about her life as a nurse: “Her love for nursing, her great compassion for others, and her deep commitment to ethical practice inspired her three daughters and two of her granddaughters to become nurses.” The final request was to send any donations to a nursing scholarship fund.

So often we never get the opportunity to tell people before they die what kind of impact they have had in our lives. Not only was I able to do just that, but I had the ultimate honor of being there to hold a hand.

Joy Shiller, RN, BSN, MS, CAPA, works at The Methodist Hospital in Houston.To comment, e-mail editorNTL@gannetthg.com.