Or Ava, Anjanette or Whitley.
That was my conclusion after spending a recent night shift on med-surg floor with the team at Novant Health Matthews Medical Center. From the moment I arrived at 7 p.m. – taking in wide-eyed the beeping from monitors, the patients being wheeled into rooms, the bustle at the nurses’ station – until I left at 1 a.m., the team there displayed three things: compassion, stamina and good cheer.
As part of Novant Health’s commitment to serving the community through the pandemic, the organization is enlisting the help of its full workforce to support front-line caregivers. What that means: Even someone like me can pitch in.
In my day job as a writer and editor in the corporate communications office, I mend sentences, not broken bones. So never fear, Novant Health patients: I came nowhere close to giving medical care during my shift. Instead, nonclinical volunteers like I was that night serve as “go-fers” – running and fetching needed items so nurses could focus on patients.
And focus they did. The care they delivered under trying circumstances throughout their 12-hour shifts left me wondering: How do they do this day after day?
‘I want to be there for people’
Nurse Haley Melton spent the night zipping from room to room, assessing vital signs, responding to requests from patients, offering gentle compassion to one patient who was sobbing uncontrollably, and doing all of this with constant cheer.
“More patients coming in confused every week,” Melton said. “It’s easy to become burned out and lose that empathy but I love the patient interaction the most. It’s the whole reason I got into this.”
Melton chose nursing after watching a nurse care for her great-grandma when she was in hospice. “I thought, ‘I want to be there for people like that,’” Melton said. “It led me into nursing school. Helping people, that’s really why I got into it – meeting someone at their darkest point when they feel like they have nobody else.”
Melton recalled a recent patient, an elderly woman who was confused. “I had to do a lot of unpleasant things I knew she would not enjoy but which had to be done medically. By the end of the week, I got to see her go home to her family, and she thanked me over and over again, and it was the best thing ever.”
Compassionate care from someone who’s been there
Ava Thomas’ title is medical unit receptionist, but she’s really nursing’s air traffic controller. From her perch at the nurse’s station – the floor’s hub – she answers calls from patients and family and dispatches nurses to respond to needs. She is the calm center of the unit’s swirling storm of action.
Thomas is listening for beeps from monitors that display heart rhythms for patients wearing telemetry units, or tele-boxes. She’s eyeing hallways for blinking lights that indicate a patient needs something and watching for confused patients who may get out of bed to wander. She’s like the mom who knows what you are doing even when her back’s to you. She’s also comforting patients in ways large and small – like digging into her own money to buy something from the vending machine for a patient who wanted a special snack.
Thomas’ compassion springs from her own health crises as she was growing up.
“When I was a kid, I was in and out of the hospital myself with asthma or pneumonia,” she said. “One time I was sharing a room with someone and one day they brought this older lady’s tray in and sat it down. Nobody offered to help her eat. So I got up and went over and fed her myself. … I decided that night that I wanted to help people.”
Thomas worked eight years as a hospice nurse and then transferred to hospital work, where her inborn compassion is a vital part of her work. The entire fourth-floor team, she said, is fiercely devoted.
“Once we had a patient that was in distress, and all the nurses on the floor pitched in to help that patient’s nurse,” Thomas recalled. “We ended up transferring that patient to a higher level of care, but if it wasn’t for that (intervention), the patient could have coded.”
Even during back-to-back 12-hour shifts, registered nurse Anjanette Ly wears her reputation for kindness like a banner. “I learned this word in nursing school, ‘rapport,’ which is a close and harmonious relationship … they talk about ‘building rapport’ with patients, and I love when I get to do that,” said Ly. “If you work in this field, kindness is really important. Actually caring about people and wanting to help them is what nursing is all about.”
Whether she’s responding to a patient’s call light or taking vital signs or rolling the translator device to a room to communicate with a patient who doesn’t speak English, Ly relies on her natural store of empathy – and the support of her colleagues. “We have a really good team here on the Matthews Medical Center fourth floor,” she said. “We all help each other.”
Kindness = Cheerios and heated blankets
Whitley Edwards, assistant nurse manager, pulled away from her duties to give me a tour of the floor and of the expected needs for the night. “Every patient gets a welcome bucket,” she told me as we entered the supply room. New patients are set up with toothpaste, no-slip socks, lotion and the like so that a potentially scary experience – spending the night in the hospital – is made as comfortable as possible. That includes snacks from a well-stocked pantry. While I was there, the nurses provided a steady supply of Cheerios to one patient who seemed to feel a little calmer with a bowl of crunchy late-night O’s in his room.
The nurses, certified nursing assistants and others on the team are dealing with the most important issues patients are facing – post-surgical healing, monitoring for respiratory or cardiac condition or step-down care from the ICU. But they’re treating less-visible conditions, too. Like discomfort. Sadness. And fear.
The care you need, when you need it.
“There’s also more to that person than what’s wrong with them,” Whitley said. Patients may need reassurance that their treatment plan is underway or a comforting presence or answers to questions about what’s next. Sometimes they just need to feel cozy and safe. And that leads us to heated blankets.
“One of the first things people think of for comfort in a hospital is a warm blanket,” said Edwards, who pointed out the blanket-warming cabinet during my tour so I would know where to get them for patients. “You can snuggle up and it makes half a problem go away.”
I texted my husband and kids at home: “I just saw where they heat up hospital blankets!” They understood my excitement. They had heard me rhapsodize enough times about being swaddled neck to toe in heated cotton blankets after each of my kids’ births. (To the point where in telling the story, I sometimes I led with blankets rather than, you know, the births of the kids.)
At every turn, I got a new view of their dedication. Several nurses told me about one patient who stayed with them for months and whom they quickly grew to love. They made him an honorary staff member, creating a badge for him, chatting with him as he pulled over a chair to sit beside the nurses’ station, even celebrating his birthday with a surprise party.
A secret ingredient in healing? Someone to listen.
Through the night, new patients were wheeled from the emergency room. Some came in deeply confused because of dementia or something related to the medical condition that brought them to the hospital. One patient thought he needed to go to work and kept leaving his bed to wander the hall. Another yelled out repeatedly and was unable to settle to sleep. They required near-constant attention from the team. I was amazed that the patience and gentleness of the team never flagged.
“We have to remember that when people come to the hospital, they are often not themselves,” Edwards said. “We are taught in school that listening can be one of the most therapeutic techniques of communications. A lot of times that is what our patients want – just someone to listen.”
Top photo caption (L-R): Anjanette Ly, Whitley Edwards.