MY PATIENT MR. CARLTON was ecstatic. He'd just returned to our inpatient rehab unit after using a day pass to visit his family. When I asked him what he'd done, he bragged that he'd done "absolutely nothing and enjoyed every minute of it!!" We both laughed and I proceeded with my routine nursing duties.
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Mr. Carlton had been in rehab for 3 weeks to recover from fall-related injuries. I found his friendly and positive attitude refreshing, but I couldn't ignore the nagging feeling that my own enthusiasm for nursing had grown stale.
After administering his evening medications, I asked one of the open-ended questions I typically asked patients: "How's rehab going?"
He replied, "It's been going well and all of you have been just wonderful, but I can't wait to go home." Having heard this countless times before, I half-heartedly joked, "I bet doing nothing today felt great compared to 3 hours of rehab therapy every day!!"
I commented that it must have been wonderful to have seen his family. He responded, "Oh yes!! My son and his wife and my grandchildren were there." Barely registering his reply, I completed my nursing assessment and prepared to settle him in for the night before moving on to my next patient.
As I was gathering my things to leave his room, he continued, "And I saw Bluebell!!" He was beaming.
"Who's Bluebell?" I asked.
"She's my cat. I've missed her so much."
Feeling the twinge of a familiar emotion, I responded, "I just love cats. I used to have cats, but they're all gone now." I rarely share much about myself with my patients, but when it comes to cats, I can't resist opening up.
Then the "cat chat" began. I asked him about Bluebell's breed, her color, and whether she was an indoor or outdoor cat. He asked me about my cats, all seven I've had over the years.
I was enjoying our conversation when Mr. Carlton suddenly looked downward and said, "My wife gave me Bluebell when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer." He choked up as he added, "My wife told me she wanted me to have someone to love after she was gone." He became quiet and I became slightly uncomfortable at this unexpected display of grief.
Tears welled in his reddening eyes as he said, "I'm sorry. I don't know why I suddenly got so emotional." A wave of empathy swept over me. Reassuring him that I wanted to hear more about Bluebell and his wife, I sat down beside his bed.
"Bluebell was supposed to be my cat, but she followed my wife everywhere," he smiled sadly. "Bluebell was so attentive. It was almost as if she knew that my wife needed her more than I did." As I listened, I connected with that deep bond between humans and pets. My own favorite cat, Honeybea, had been euthanized 3 years earlier because she had cancer. I still miss her.
"It sounds like Bluebell really wanted to help you take care of your wife," I said. Mr. Carlton nodded and wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. "When my wife was in hospice care, Bluebell used to curl up on her shoulder and never left her side, even when she was unconscious near the end. And now Bluebell takes care of me. I don't know what I'd do without that cat."
Mr. Carlton interrupted himself and apologized for taking up so much of my time. But at that moment, I realized that identifying with the love he felt for his pet had dissipated the emotional distance that I'd begun to feel between my patients and me. I'd forgotten what it was like to empathize with a patient's experience.
I said, "Bluebell cared for your wife, and maybe now she's helping you to grieve for her loss. That's one special cat, and I can understand why she means so much to you."
We talked a while longer. I could see that Mr. Carlton was feeling better after sharing his story. "Thank you so much for talking with me. Will you be my nurse tomorrow?" I told him that I probably wouldn't see him again.
"I hope you get back to Bluebell very soon. Let me know if you need anything. Sleep well," I said.
"I think tonight I will sleep well. And I hope you get another cat soon," he told me.
Closing his door as I left the room, I realized that it had taken a patient's love for his pet to help me remember what the therapeutic relationship between a nurse and a patient was all about: the art of caring.