Contact: Christine Phelan Kueter: 434-982-3312
(5-8-2012) Nursing student Casey Holmes, BSN ’12, remembers the day her first patient died.
“I recognized all the signs,” she wrote in her clinical journal, part of the training for all nursing students at U.Va. “Her breathing went from rapid to slow. All we could do was promise the family that we would be there for them when the inevitable happened.”
And, rather suddenly, it did. Moments into her shift, Holmes’ patient – her body ravaged by cancer, her chart labeled with a a DNR (“do not resuscitate”) – passed away, her daughters, sisters, the nursing team, a priest and a chaplain by her side. Holmes couldn’t hold back her tears. The swell of emotion, up and down through the day, hit a peak when she tended to the body.
“I felt like I had lived days in just a few hours,” wrote Holmes, pictured left, who grew up in Williamsburg. “I think I finally realized how close to death we are in nursing. If I want to be a nurse, I will have to deal with death and dying, no matter how hard it may be.”
If illness, deathand grief wreak havoc on patients, their families and loved ones, nurses navigate these issues sometimes multiple times during a day’s work. And at the University of Virginia, teaching compassion and resilience – essential components of nursing – are among the most vital skills nurtured in future health care practitioners.
“Compassion is not a choice,” explains Dean Dorrie Fontaine, of the School of Nursing, “but a necessary ingredient in caring for patients and families.”
The School of Nursing’s Compassionate Care Initiative (CCI) – part of a push by Fontaine, dean since 2008 and a former critical care nurse herself – is a key part of the training for every level of nurse. The initiative exists to create dialogue around and preparedness for nurses who deal every day with people in life-changing situations. Part of CCI, as it’s known around Grounds, is keeping a journal. Too, most nursing classes fold in discussions on dealing with patient and family stress, how to be supportive while remaining unobtrusive, how to listen intently and with care, while ushering people through some of the most dramatic days of their lives.
But equally important is teaching nurses ways to remain resilient themselves. Nursing students regularly attend retreats and workshops on dealing with stress and the myriad challenges of the profession. They learn to use yoga and meditation to quiet their minds, practice visualization and measure their breathing in an effort to harness peace.
And they talk. The University’s new Contemplative Sciences Center – part of an effort to bring these mind-quieting practices to a range of disciplines, including education, nursing and psychology, among others – will help those discussions blossom.
It is, says Fontaine, a sort of fusion of art and science.
“For most people, the capacity to be deeply aware of their own experience, or another’s experience, must be cultivated through practices and processes that teach us how to be still inside,” she explains. “How to quiet our minds, sense our bodies and tap into an innate, deep well of wisdom and creativity can serve us in extraordinary ways. We can learn to be thoughtful, watchful and observant.”
For Holmes, dealing with these big issues as a nurse ultimately became life-affirming. So is the process it takes to get there.
“The journals are a great idea, for nurses, and for people who deal with hard situations,” says Holmes, who graduates this May. “’Here’s how I got through it, here’s how I felt at the end. And this is why I’m a nurse, and why I do my best every time.’
“Moments like these really shape who you are as a nurse.”