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Nurses Praise Patient Connection

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

  Lyn Payne has treated countless patients in her eight years at Mease Dunedin Hospital. She says some stand out, like one particularly grumpy and demanding patient.

"This one night, I was working on the floor and she was my patient. And I knew people would be rolling their eyes -- 'Oh no, it's so and so again’ -- calling. And I decided to just go in there and talk to her,” Payne said.

“I just sat down and held her hand and I said, 'Would you like to talk?' And she told me this story how she got sick and how she was a special education teacher. How she missed her children. She had just gained custody of her two granddaughters who were being abused because her daughter had died a year before."

That 10-minute conversation changed the woman's demeanor, and Payne's attitude.

"I couldn't believe she was telling me this story and we never knew anything about her. We just saw her as just somebody who was just taking up a lot of our time," she said.

The talk about health care these days focuses a lot on efficiency and the latest high-tech treatments. Doctors and nurses can easily get caught up in all the bells and whistles and demands that they produce results. But sometimes practitioners slow down enough to remember that the most healing touch is more personal.

For 27 years, the Florida Nurses Association has honored nurses who share stories about these intimate, healing connections. Representatives from hospitals and practices statewide submit essays and winners such as Payne read and reflect on their experiences at an annual conference, held this year in Safety Harbor.

Florida Atlantic University nursing professor Patricia Liehr says nurses have a unique opportunity to connect with patients and families as part of their work. But that's hard to remember when you spend each 12-hour shift monitoring the medical side of six or seven patients at one time, she said.

“The way our system has gone is more in the direction of numbers, you know, the technology, the high-tech piece of it has overshadowed the story,” she said. “And when we miss the story, we miss the essence of who the patient is and we miss what matters to them.”

Teresa Birmingham works on a trauma unit at Tampa General Hospital, where an elderly woman she calls ‘Mrs. P’ arrived about a year ago. Her dentures were black and she wasn't eating, couldn't talk or feed herself.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Teresa Birmingham, nurse at Tampa General Hospital

“The doctor said she was going to go home,” Birmingham said of the story she shared at the conference earlier this month. “I had an intuition that something was wrong, that she was being neglected. I was trying to...basically prayed for some kind of answer because I wanted to protect Mrs. P.”

Birmingham spent time talking with the patient, her daughter and other family members. She learned the daughter was a single mom of two young kids, trying to care for her mother 24 hours a day.

Also, Birmingham gained the trust of a relative, who confirmed her suspicions. It was what the nurse needed to gently suggest that the daughter needed extra help. The daughter understood and agreed to get trained caregivers to help with her mother’s health needs.

Birmingham, a 10-year nursing veteran, says she didn't always think personal connections would be so important to her job as a nurse.

“As a new nurse, you think that you pass meds, you know, you do your assessments,” she said. "But there's a larger aspect of nursing that is concentrated on the social aspect of it and patients' feelings, and your empathy.  We can all get a 4.0 grade point average. But then if you can't talk with families, it gets you nowhere.”

Sharing these stories also reminds experienced nurses why their vocation is so important, said Willa Fuller, director of the Orlando-based Nurses Association.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Willa Fuller, director of the Florida Nurses Association

“I think that the personal side is the core of what nursing is and if nurses don't experience that personal side, that's what leads to dissatisfaction and burnout,” she said.

It's impossible to measure how the personal touch affects patient health or costs. Liehr says it's a mistake to discount the value of listening and connecting.

"I think that stories are connected to the bottom line," Liehr said. “And so I think to miss that idea  is to miss a huge piece of what can make a difference for patients."

Lyn Payne agrees. She got a handwritten card from the once-grumpy patient, when the woman improved enough to be released to a rehabilitation center.

"You just have to feel for them. I mean you do. You see their tears. You see what happens. You see what happens when a patient gets a diagnosis of cancer and what it does to the family,” Payne said.

“You know, you cannot be a good nurse without understanding what that patient feels.” 

Mary Shedden is news director at WUSF.