The quote below from Maya Angelou is one of my all-time faves.
People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
I learned this lesson so vividly at the beginning of my nursing career (in the Cardiovascular Unit at an academic medical center) thanks to an extraordinarily special patient.
I’ll call him Sid. He was a wise, kind and gentle man. Jewish. About 80. He was hospitalized for a chronic cardiac arrhythmia (a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat). When Sid was admitted to the hospital, his cardiologist thought that the arrhythmia could be remedied. The physician was wrong. Though he wouldn’t admit it.
Sid was in the hospital for 4 days before his death. I was his primary nurse, meaning that I cared for him 12 hours/day. I remember that the patient census was unusually light that week and that the unit was quiet – a rare occurrence.
This quietness afforded me to spend more time with Sid than I would normally be able to spend with a patient.
After the hustle and bustle of the day, usually by about 8:00 (i.e., after the physicians and administrators leave for the day and after visiting hours), there is often a solitude that descends on a hospital unit. Nurses give the evening meds. Patients prepare for sleep. Lights are dimmed.
Sid didn’t want to sleep. He wanted to talk. He knew he was dying. I knew he was dying.
I sat with him. I held his hand. I listened to him.
He told me about his wife of 50 years (who died several years earlier). He told me about his favorite foods. His most adventurous travels. His friends. He talked about the characters in his life and the character of his life.
We laughed. We shed some tears. We laughed some more.
His adult children were omnipresent during the days. They worried. Though Sid knew he was dying, he didn’t have the heart to break their hearts, so he let his children believe his doctor who, until the last day, said that Sid would get better.
He died one evening after his children left. Four days after his admission to the hospital. It was a peaceful death. In his sleep. Withouth pain.
I was invited to his funeral. It was the first of many patient funerals I attended. I remember being very nervous because until that point, I had not had many people in my life die, either personally or professionally. And I had never attended a Jewish funeral, much less a BIG Jewish funeral.
When I got out of my car, his children parted the crowd and said, “Papa’s Nurse is here. Look! Papa’s Nurse.”
Both his son and his daughter came up to me with open arms and thanked me profusely for being with Sid when he died. For ensuring that he didn’t feel any pain at the end of his life. For making them feel safe and comforted. For helping Sid feel happy by recollecting life stories. For making Sid feel dignified in his last hours.
Caring for Sid was one of the most poignant professional experiences of my life because I truly understood Maya Angelou’s quote. It’s really not about what we do. It’s about how we make others feel: the ultimate Silver Lining in life.