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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

Small Mercies: The Best Nurse Ever

Anti-Anxiety Tool of the Week: Noticing the Little Things

Sometimes we overlook or take for granted the small blessings in our lives--the snap and salt tang of a crisp chip or cracker, a glass of cool water on a hot day, the smooth flow of ink from a pen, the softness of a favorite pair of pajamas. There are so many who don't have these things. But wallowing in guilt doesn't help anyone, so I came up with a slogan: Gratitude not guilt. For all those lovely small things that are so easy to ignore. Gratitude for the little things. It opens my heart just a tiny bit more.

Small Mercies: The Best Nurse Ever

It's amazing what a little kindness can do.

When I was a maternity nurse I was really good at providing labor support--able to be compassionately present, listening, watching, encouraging, helping the laboring mother through with focused breathing, massage, different positions, and various other tools of the trade. I did a good job teaching babycare skills to new parents as well. I was also fine with understanding the technology of fetal monitors, etc. But I was not that good at being organized or making snap decisions in emergencies. The best nurses do all these things well--compassionate patient-focused care coupled with excellent decision-making and technical skills.

It didn't help that our head nurse rated sensitive, supportive care near or at the bottom of her list of necessary skills. Of course nurses have to be able to respond well in emergencies, so I certainly got her point. But it was no fun dealing with her sense that I was inadequate in the single arena she truly valued.

One evening we were extremely busy--lots of women in labor, several births happening at once. On nights like that we would help each other out, if we got a break, by checking up on each other's patients. I had a brief breather, so I swung through our recovery room (where we took women after C-sections) to see if anyone needed anything. There was only one woman at the time--small, dark haired and wide awake. I did a quick check and she was doing very well. Except that she was extremely thirsty. Some doctors allow their patients ice chips after a C-section but some don't allow any liquid for several hours, to reduce the risk of digestive tract complications.

"My mouth is so dry," said the woman, with some difficulty. "It's terrible. Can you do something to help? I'm so thirsty can't even focus well on my baby!"

I think all hospitals keep supplies of mouth swabs on hand. These products have tiny amounts of moisture, with a little flavoring and maybe some soothing glycerin, just enough to relieve a dry mouth. I found a handful on a nearby shelf, wondering why her own nurse hadn't offered them. They should be standard care for someone who isn't allowed to take liquids by mouth. I explained about them, broke open a package and handed her one. She eagerly wiped it around inside her mouth, closed her eyes, and sighed deeply. "Oh!" she said. "Oh, that feels so good! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

I smiled and told her I was happy to help. It felt really good to make such a big difference with such an easy intervention. Since it was a busy night and she wasn't my patient I didn't see her again before they moved her out to the postpartum unit. She was discharged before I did my next shift.

About four years later when I was teaching at a nursery school, I went down to the kitchen one morning to pick up the snack. There was a small dark-haired woman filling the snack baskets. She turned around, looked at me and said, "Oh my gosh--it's you! It's you! The best nurse ever!" She was excited. "I've never forgotten you! Do you remember me?" and she proceeded to relate the story of the mouth swabs. Though I hadn't recognized her at first, once prompted I did remember, I guess in part because I had been irritated that her own nurse hadn't taken the few seconds needed to give her a little relief.

"The best nurse ever!" She repeated it several more times, and ended up giving me a big hug. From then on if I saw her at the school, or happened to run in to her in town somewhere she would get a huge smile on her face and call me "the best nurse ever." And tell anyone else who was present. Of course I was a little embarrassed (I certainly didn't feel I had earned the accolade) but she taught me an important lesson.

The nurses she had in the operating room, the recovery room and on the postpartum unit all did much more complex nursing than I did with her. And I know she was very grateful to them all. But the nurse she remembered? The one who, in her book, was the best nurse ever? She was the one who paused briefly in her busy shift to do a small kindness.

Most of the time we don't have any idea how our actions affect others. If I hadn't run into that woman again I wouldn't have known how she felt. So don't discount those small kindnesses you offer to others. Tiny things can matter as much as big.

Part of me wants to "save" lots of people, to do something big that will touch many, or to offer something that will change someone's life in a dramatic way. Emily Dickinson, an oh-so-shy introvert, had a different idea.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

Thanks to Emily, and my dark-haired friend, I try to accept that the small mercies I offer are enough.

Until next time,


Photo credits:

Glass of water, Manki Kim, unSplash

Nurse with laboring woman, Gabriella Hunt (not related!), In Good Health

Glycerin swabs, unknown

Hands, National Cancer Institute,



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