There are things that make us uncomfortable. Like, for example, in a theater, when we’re seated particularly close to a stranger. A book titled The Fundamentals of Nursing tells us the intimate zone is 18 to 0 inches, or actual touch. Of all the people whose paths we cross in a day, there aren’t many to whom we get that close unless they’re friends, lovers, family, or—ironically—total strangers. And in those cases, we say sorry if we bump elbows or feet. It’s surprising, and possibly awkward, to touch a stranger.
As nursing students, we learn to approach nearly naked strangers who are vulnerable in multitudes of ways. We speak to them for a few minutes, then move closer to listen to their heart and lungs. We may clean them, and access their veins. We still don’t really know them, but we know if they’re in pain, or if they need anything. We ask how they cope, and usually they tell us because we are seen as safe deposit boxes, neutral keepers and providers. They say, I cope by spending time with my children. I cope with alcohol, prayer, heroine, jogging. And after only a few hours, we know parts of them better than we know much of our own family. We touch their skin, and in many cases reach, literally and figuratively, below it.
One doesn’t have to be a nurse to experience this. Most people encounter astounding intimacy with another person, be it through love, death, or an accident on the roadside. But what we don’t all experience are the relationships that form between individuals learning to become nurses.
Initially, I saw empathic, funny and exhausted people learning about acid/base imbalances and tube feeding. I saw people studying, and practicing.
Then I began to see other things.
I saw a classmate break into tears in the locker room because she’d spent the last six hours helping a family decide how best to make use of their teenage daughter’s organs.
I watched a classmate devise a way to give a virtual hug to a child in the locked psychiatric unit, because imaginary hugs were the only allowable form of physical contact for this patient.
Gradually, I became less surprised by the unique intimacy of nursing, but more astonished by my colleagues. I saw classmates deal with children and family crises while still making it to the hospital by 6:30 a.m. with ten pages of information about the pathophysiological, pharmacological and sociocultural backgrounds of the patients they would care for that day.
Together, we learned to walk into strangers’ rooms, enter their intimate zone, and suddenly know parts of them, because their lives were in the midst of profound change. And similarly, we walked into this group of fellow students and suddenly knew one another, because our lives, too, underwent profound change.
I believe each of our patients will be affected by this knowing, and I believe it will be a source of great strength for all of us.
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