A few days before Christmas, an ICU patient named Jonathan — a newly engaged 35-year-old grocery store manager — lay flat on his back looking up at the dingy ceiling tiles. He had sustained a massive myocardial infarction. He was very sick and his view of that ceiling was unlikely to change anytime soon.
As a novice ICU nurse, I recognized that he was the sickest patient I had ever cared for, and he remains one of the most memorable. We did all we could for Jonathan physically. But what could we do to brighten his spirit?
For starters, my co-workers and I decorated the ceiling with a string of holiday lights, pictures of his family and colorful posters with get-well messages. Each night as I returned for my shift I hoped for good news, but burdensome insurance issues kept him off the transplant list.
Jonathan’s complex situation is not unusual. So, why is he a patient I’ll always remember? A combination of things makes him memorable: his youth; the proximity to the holidays; being entrusted with his care as an inexperienced nurse; the insurance frustrations; and watching his fiancée cry at his bedside. I can still see Jonathan’s face.
As nurses, we share stories of the countless patients remembered, the unforgettable families. Sometimes we remember the diagnosis, a unique situation about their care or their personality. They’re burnished in our memories forever.
I believe we share these stories in recognition that these patients have helped make us better, stronger nurses. We acknowledge their role in our education and experience, and we’re grateful to those who trust us with their care. By openly giving thanks we bring out the best in those around us, including our patients. I have noticed that grateful people spend more time helping others, leading to improved teamwork and better patient outcomes.
Did you know that neural pathways strengthen when we share stories of gratitude? Neuroscience says dopamine and serotonin trigger positive emotions, such as optimism and motivation. Scholars say gratitude is one of the greatest predictors of well-being and builds connections to those around us. One study on nurses’ well-being indicates that gratitude is a predictor of less exhaustion, fewer absences, higher job satisfaction and proactive behaviors. Patients make us unstoppable!
Sadly, Jonathan had a stroke that kept him off the transplant list, and he died only a few days into the new year. Although heartbroken, I was filled with gratitude for the opportunity to know him, care for him and learn from him. Please share with me the story of a patient you remember with gratitude at Unstoppable@aacn.org.