My Patients Taught Me Why Empathy Is an Asset

It was almost over before it began. I was 18 and in my first semester of a highly competitive associate degree in nursing program. Plus, I had just started my weekend home health aide job. My first patient was a woman who was terminally ill  and had decided to die at home surrounded by her loving family.

Valeria A. Esposito Kubanick, RN

My shift started at 8:00 a.m., and when I arrived it was clear that the patient had very little time left. I was young and inexperienced, so I just made the patient as comfortable as possible. She passed away at 10:00 a.m.

The family was distraught. Having never been in this situation before, I didn’t know what to say, but I felt their pain. I cried with them. We all sat there sobbing as more family members arrived to mourn. I went home that day and thought hard about my decision to be a nurse.

Do I have what it takes?

The next week before my class started, I informed my professor that I was going to withdraw from the nursing program and needed her to sign my withdrawal slip. She asked me why, so I told her about the home health patient who passed away. I began crying and said that I felt I was too emotional to be a good nurse.

My professor looked at me, paused, then laughed and said, “You cried. You will make an excellent nurse. Now go and sit down and get ready for class.”

I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but I stayed in the program. After graduating, I worked in medical/oncology and floated to other units in the hospital. I was gaining a wealth of nursing experience, but I still felt like something was missing. Then, a nursing administrator from the psychiatric hospital where I did my nursing school rotation gave me a call. She offered me a job, but I declined, saying I had no interest in psychiatry.

She said she was desperate for nurses and offered me a sign-on bonus and a six-month contract. I took the offer thinking that six months would go by fast, and I would move on to something else. I ended up staying at that job for over 18 years! It’s where I figured out why my nursing school professor said I couldn’t quit. I had a natural sense of empathy that was sorely needed.

My empathy grew while working in psychiatry, and I learned so much from my patients about communication, coping skills, and what it truly means to be patient focused.

Ask the right questions

A while back I was assigned to give medications on a research unit. One patient was awaiting a court date for “medications over objection” for refusing to take his meds for weeks. I was told not to bother trying to engage him in conversation because he was accustomed to being alone. The patient was homeless and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia decades before. When I entered his room I offered his medication, but he didn’t answer me. As he hid under the bed covers, I told him I would keep him company, pulled up a chair, and started my charting.

After some time had passed, he began responding to my questions. Turns out he was scared to go to court. I told him he wouldn’t have to go to court if he took his medication. When I asked him why he refused the medication, he said that he wished to take a vitamin with it. We agreed that he would take the medication with a vitamin.

I asked him why he just didn’t tell the staff that all he wanted was a vitamin included in his regimen. “No one asked me,” he said.

When I told the other staff members on the floor about his simple request, they were shocked but appreciative. After all, a vitamin was a simple fix and less stressful than going to court.

Reciprocating my empathy

Another patient who was depressed and about to undergo treatment for cancer taught me how my words can make an impact. I was working on a holiday when I found the patient crying in his room because he was not home with his wife and children. We sat and talked for a while, and after a lot of encouragement, I walked him to the phone and sat with him while he called his family. He was so grateful.

After he hung up, he insisted that I call my family for the holiday. He was reciprocating the empathy I’d shown him. How could I say no? I agreed to call my parents, but only if he sat with me. The patient passed away later that month. I was sad but thankful that he was able to have a heartfelt conversation with his family before he died.

Today, I’m a college professor, board-certified in psychiatric and mental health nursing, and have over three decades of experience. I share my stories with my students so they can understand that nursing — just like life — is a journey. Sometimes, we don’t know where we’re going until we get there. Building our skills helps us along the way. I also teach my students that trusting our mentors, understanding empathy, and being open to new possibilities give us a better chance at success.

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