While I learned a lot in the classroom as a nursing student, the biggest lessons and insights I gained – and have since brought with me to my clinical practice – were not from the books, but from my patients. Many of whom politely put up with my fumbling, and who so graciously taught me what providing health care is actually about.
I’ve been nervous about doing things “right” my whole life. Being a nursing student was no exception. Part of my assignment in nursing school during hospital rotations included teaming up with a staff nurse who I would work with and who would mentor me for the day. One day during my rotation, I was given a patient to care for who was having breathing issues. I was sent in to the patient’s room to do an assessment and report that assessment to my mentor.
As I walked into this patient’s room to do my assessment, he was sitting up in his hospital bed without a shirt on. He had an oxygen mask around his face and he was visibly struggling to breathe. I had my “good student” hat on, and I was focused on completing my assignment. Of course if he was having breathing issues I needed to listen to his lungs. Check!
So, that is what I did. I listened to his lungs. His chest was already bare so I didn’t need to ask him to lift his shirt up or change into a gown before I put my stethoscope on his chest and listened.
Later my nursing mentor came to me and informed me that our patient did not want me taking care of him anymore. Why?
I had listened to his lungs without asking permission. In fact, that’s all I’d really done the short amount of time I was in his room.
Right. Without asking, I had just pressed my cold stethoscope against his bare chest. Not only that, I remember I actually felt so nervous I hadn’t really even talked to him – I may have barely introduced myself. (Note to any nursing students here: taking a history and interacting with your patient is a HUGE part of your assessment – and a huge part of providing empathetic and compassionate care.) I had not only done a poor clinical assessment, but I had also left out the two most important parts: 1) consent and 2) respect for this human as more than just a set of lungs that were compromised.
This was a painful learning experience for me, but it was one of the most important lessons of my clinical experiences as a nursing student and subsequently as a practicing nurse.
It was so important to me because I learned that as health care provider, I have a responsibility to treat and relate to other human beings in a way that honors that they are whole human beings with not only physical needs, but emotional, mental and spiritual needs as well. Additionally it taught me to honor that each patient is the owner and authority of their own body.
Healing is not about fixing a body part. It may include facilitating healing for the physical body, but healing is about honoring the complex, beautiful and messy wholeness of our humanity. About connecting, human to human.
I share this story with you for a few reasons. First, to remind you that your body is your own. Just because you employ the services of a health care provider does not give them permission to treat your body like an object. Signing a consent form does not sign away your voice, rights or ownership of any part of you.
It is my hope for each and every one of you that you will have safe health care experiences where you feel seen, heard, respected, and safe. But I also share this story with you to tell you that when you do need to advocate for yourself, you are not only doing right by your own being, you never know who may be learning on the other end of that stethoscope.
Nicole Flemmer, ARNP, FNP-C is a nurse practitioner in Seattle, Washington. She developed an interdisciplinary framework for helping professionals to create effective and meaningful partnerships with their patients called Empathetic Partnership. She is also the founder of the We Belong Project, an online resource for women of sexual minority and health care providers who care for them.