Empathy and Nursing: Human Connection

By Elizabeth Maish, TMC Vice President & Chief Nursing Officer

Tom BergeronWhat is nursing?

What is it that we do every day?

We follow a lot of orders, give medications, and look for supplies.

We respond to the interminable call lights.

We worry and wait…

We rarely take the time to ponder what it is that we do besides what is right in front of us at the time. Some of us head home after work and wonder how it got so complicated…and how we have arrived at this place, doing this work. Our thinking is usually peppered with life decisions, alternate paths taken and yet to take, and a past full of change.

So what does a nurse do? We optimize life changes: the good, the sad, the successes and the losses. Incidentally, a lot of what we see is made up of all these things! We carry through, we carry water, we carry on. We shield, protect, and soothe pain. In the process of caring, we bind to the human condition ‑ the inexplicable and sacred.

We are present in the unwelcome moments, the quiet moments and final moments. I’m describing empathy. This is what it looks like.

Many find that being with the sick and the dying is hard or impossible; to stare at your own mortality can be discomforting – you know the future that everything passes, including you and everyone you love. As nurses, we’re right there watching and helping life play out at the bedside. This empathic way that nurses have means simply being there, showing up, with intent.

Can you recall a patient who righted your bearings, hit you in the heart or gut, changed your practice, or poured gasoline on the smoldering fire that was your passion for caring?

I can. She was 88. She liked to line dance and work in her garden. As she grew very old, she didn’t want to give these things up and decided on surgery to fix a very tired heart. I met her after surgery, knowing she wouldn’t leave the bed she was in. She would never stand, cut a flower or make herself some food. I grasped her hand during a position change and suddenly she was wide awake, smiling around an ET tube.

We looked at each other and in her eyes I saw a mixture of sadness, resignation and mostly peace. None of this had turned out the way she thought it would. But it was alright. She was facing her end with calm and was ready. Regrets? Maybe a few, but no matter, the time had come. The thoughts and feelings that passed between us in a few seconds re-ignited my sleeping brain, formally consumed with mostly petty things that had to be done that day. She re-ignited my heart, where she lives as a hero. For some reason, I was there with her to share this moment of our humanity.

There is nothing more important than this work.

The next time you pause to think about what to do next, call on the patient who sent a divine lightning bolt through your heart and soul. We all have some patient memory inside that awakened us! Silently thank this patient for reminding you, centering you to care, to show up and to connect. It’s a tough world out there ‑ nurses make it bearable and many times, joyously livable.

Please accept my sincere congratulations on the 2014 Nurses Week.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing this it beautiful!! It reminded me of my beautiful mother.

  2. Very enlightening and worth pondering upon, thank you…

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