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The tears flowed as she told me about the progression of her husband's Alzheimer's disease. After 40 years of marriage, her husband had received a diagnosis of dementia. Each day produced more confusion. He repeatedly asked the same questions and was nothing like the man she had married. As she cried, she told me how she felt her children would disown her if she placed her husband in a nursing home. Apparently, because he was still able to function on his own, they saw their father as her responsibility. To them, his cognitive decline did not justify assisted-living placement.


Once again, I sat in the exam room feeling helpless to do anything but offer a hug to my patient. What could I tell her that would lift her spirits? No words came. I actually stepped out of the room and said a prayer. I remember feeling angry at God in that moment. How many times in the care of elderly patients had I seen a similar scenario? It seemed so unfair that after a lifetime of commitment, a couple should be faced with such difficult decisions.


Taking a deep breath, I walked back into the exam room. My patient sat in the corner with tears still running down her face. Sitting next to her, I gently placed my arm around her shoulder. No words were necessary. In that moment, the empathy I felt for her situation was obvious. She reached out and hugged me in return. Slowly regaining her composure and with a deep sigh, she apologized for losing control of her emotions. I assured her that I appreciated the difficulty of her situation.


We then discussed her hypertension, the reason for her appointment. With an attempt at a smile, she promised that she'd try to follow her medication regimen. As she stood to leave, she thanked me once more for allowing her to vent her emotions. She then walked away with a seemingly renewed demeanor.


Some days, nursing practice is discouraging. When the feeling of helplessness sets in, there are no easy answers for the clinician or the patient. On days such as today, I am reminded yet again that the power of empathy cannot be underestimated.


Listening with an attentive, understanding heart is oftentimes most difficult when we feel helpless because we are eagerly searching for answers. However, on days such as this, I am reminded that empathy is exactly what patients hunger to experience. When caring for others, it is not always within my ability to find solutions that ultimately bring comfort. At times, the empathy they are seeking is the greatest support I can offer as an attentive clinician. I find this difficult because I want to remedy the situation, to be a "good nurse." Yet, offering empathy and encouragement is at the heart of nurturing our patients and equipping them to tackle more successfully the health and emotional struggles of their lives.

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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, (NIV)