Pamela Hunt, a former chief nurse executive, has been a nurse for more than 40 years. She knows as well as anyone the challenges nurses face every day.
But she also knows something just as important as any of her training and experiences as a nurse: she knows what it’s like to be patient.
Diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) at 18 months, Hunt has spent more of her life as a patient than as a nurse. By the time she was 20, she had over 25 surgeries. She has lost sight in one eye, lost 18 inches of her colon, lost enough blood giving birth that she nearly died. She’s sat bedside with a loved one with 5.0 hemoglobin, uncertain of his fate.
When Hunt views things from this perspective, the patient’s perspective, she remembers why she is a nurse and why it’s worth all she’s got: “Whenever I think about the purpose of nursing practice, I always think about what it looks like through the eyes of the patient,” she says. “We know the difference we can make in their lives. Seeing the sufferings of others is not a curse of our profession, it’s a blessing.”
Here are five lessons Hunt has gleaned from her lifelong journey in and out of hospitals, and how those experiences help her see things from the eyes of patients and ground her in a purpose.
1. Taking time to talk can make all the difference
With JRA, Hunt spent weeks at a time boarding at the closest children’s hospital 75 miles from her home. Her mother, who raised Hunt and her brother alone, could only drive those 75 miles once during the week and on the weekend. The question her mom always asked when she arrived was, “Who’s your nurse?” It made a huge difference to have the nurses who took time to talk to her, who explained to her how her daughter was doing. “See, as a pediatric patient years ago, before the Joint Commission ever told us it was important to talk to the families, I knew it was important that you talked to my mom,” Hunt says.
2. Gestures of genuine care go a long way
When Hunt was 8 years old, she stayed for nine weeks at a hospital four hours away from her home. Through the consent for admission, the hospital performed surgery on Hunt without her mom knowing. The recovery room nurse noticed her mother lived far away, so she wrote a letter updating her about the surgery. The nurse never found out how meaningful that letter was, but Hunt will never forget. “I know how important it was to her because I heard her tell that story for years, and when my mom passed away, I found that letter.”
3. Some patients want to get personal
“Sometimes in our practice, rightfully so, we hesitate to tell people our names or to tell them anything about our families,” Hunt says. But as an adolescent patient, she spent most of her summers in a surgical ward, and she remembers the nursing staff sharing about themselves and their families, even small things like the birthday party they had the weekend before. “It was very comforting,” Hunt says. “I often wondered if I lived through them. Thank goodness they were free enough to share that with me so that I knew what a normal childhood looked like.”
4. Empathy matters
Of all Hunt’s surgery experiences, nothing was as painful as orthopedic recovery. In her late teens, she had two inches taken from her femur, and the rod pulled the femur apart instead of fusing it together. The surgeon had her stand on it several times to get an approximation. All of this occurred without pain medicine. Then when she was 34, she had a knee joint replacement—a replacement of a rheumatoid joint with very thin bones.
“I had forgotten about orthopedic pain,” she says. But Hunt’s nurse understood. She looked at her and told Hunt she knew the pain was not controlled. Before leaving to track down a doctor for pain meds, she assured Hunt she would be right back, and she assured her she wouldn’t neglect her pain. “All those years that I was a critical care nurse, had I ever thought to do that? Had I ever thought how comforting that was instead of just seeing the nurse leave the room and think you were alone?”
5. All nurses provide critical care
“When I started as an adult critical care nurse, we thought of ourselves as goddesses,” Hunt says. “I knew there was a unit somewhere in the hospital that took care of mothers and babies, and I thought their work was probably a little easier than my work in critical care.” But then she delivered her first-born child. Thirty minutes after giving birth, Hunt had a sudden post-partum hemorrhage, losing several pints of blood. “I learned that day that critical care nursing happens in every department of the hospital, not just in a critical care unit.” she says. “I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn't for those mother-baby nurses.”
All of Hunt’s experiences as a patient remind her of her purpose as a nurse and why she never quit. “We have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others every day by what we do,” she says. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be a part of our patient’s lives. “