President’s Column: Lessons From a Hummingbird

Mar 05, 2018

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As nurses who provide care for profoundly ill and injured patients, we’re not known to shy away from a challenge.

We excel at multitasking and take pride in working well under pressure. That’s not to say, however, that we don’t sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed. We’ve all had patient assignments so taxing that even the most experienced and resilient of us can feel like we’re in over our heads. Add to that challenges such as creating healthy work environments, fixing the staffing puzzle and addressing changing workforce dynamics, and things can feel especially daunting.

But think about the tiny hummingbird — a graceful, energetic creature that goes about its work with skill and determination, despite huge challenges such as strong winds, driving rain and unimaginably long migrations. Do they ever feel overwhelmed? How do they do what they do despite these obstacles? Are there lessons we can learn from hummingbirds? I think there are!

Hummingbirds are good at finding the balance between the Big Picture and their immediate concern. They do this by approaching things one item at a time. Of course, for our winged friend the Big Picture is simply to stay alive — and so they survive by visiting one flower and then the next, and then the next. Similarly, we can be overwhelmed by all the things a seriously ill patient needs. But we methodically organize their care, using head-to-toe, body system to body system, or most-serious to most-minor approaches to get started. Tackling the Big Picture one step at a time gives us time to develop perspective and establish a comfortable rhythm to the work.

Although hummingbirds seem to be in nearly constant motion, they do pause long enough to get the lay of the land, to evaluate risks and to simply rest. As a CNS who is often faced with multiple priorities and complicated issues to address, I have found that pausing is an essential strategy for moving forward. The pause gives me time to reflect on the WHYs of the situation and focus my thoughts. A nap, a walk, some mindful breathing or even methodically unwrapping and savoring a piece of dark chocolate allows me to pause and then resume my task with newfound clarity and energy.

A hummingbird has realistic expectations of itself. It knows what it can and cannot do, and uses its strengths when presented with a challenge. It takes full advantage of amazing aerodynamic skills to outmaneuver the wind and the neighbor’s cat. Nurses know best what patients and families need. When we combine that knowledge with data, stories and the power of our own voices, we can similarly outmaneuver all kinds of challenges to create the positive outcomes our patients depend on.

I doubt that hummingbirds can actually say “no,” but I do know they can successfully adapt to a variety of circumstances. If they could, our tiny friends would say “no” to cold, wintry weather and head south; they’d say “no” to one shrub and choose another in order to get the most nectar. There may be times, especially when projects start piling up, that we can — and should — respectfully and elegantly say “no.” Phrases like “Not now, but certainly later” and “Yes, if we can reprioritize some of my other responsibilities” are responses that can keep commitments in check. William Ury’s book “The Power of a Positive No” describes practical ways to say “no” that preserve relationships and still get needed work done.

To me, the hummingbird in my theme art represents the support and guidance that WHY provides, especially in unusual and overwhelming circumstances. Those WHYs help us continuously navigate challenges, fiercely protect our turf (our patients) and use our powerful voices — lessons learned from those graceful, tenacious and exquisitely tiny birds.

Let me know how WHY helped you when you were feeling overwhelmed at