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The universal language of nursing

The nursing station for the hospital’s surgical unit was staffed with three Brown nurses. They were chatting animatedly, expressions vibrant and hands gesturing in all directions. As a quality improvement consultant, Kathleen worked regularly with Alia, Daria, and Jas. Today, she was showing a new consultant around the hospital.


            Laura, the new consultant, turned and whispered to Kathleen. “Do you suppose they’re talking about us,” she asked. She phrased it more like a statement than a question.


           Kathleen shrugged, “I doubt it.”


            “I get very uncomfortable when I can’t understand what’s being said. Why can’t they speak English?”


            Kathleen scoffed. “I don’t think we’re that interesting. It’s more likely that they’re talking about what they did on the weekend, or what their husbands or boyfriends got up to.”


            Laura was incredulous. “Did you see the way one looked back at us? I think they’re talking about us.”


            “ Why do you think we’re the focus of their conversation?”


            “Well,” she began. “To begin with, they’re choosing to speak in a language I don’t know when they could be speaking English.”


            “It’s their first language and they’re chatting to each other in the language they’re most comfortable speaking.”


            “And now they’re staring at us!”


            A laugh escaped Kathleen’s lips. “Do you suppose they’re staring at us because they saw us staring at them? Let’s ask them.”


            Kathleen approached the three women and introduced her colleague to them.


            “We were wondering who you are,” said Alia.” Are you the new consultant?”


            Laura nodded.


            “Kathleen’s wonderful to work with,” said Alia.


            “When she’s not overly emotional with the patients,” said Daria, the nurse educator.


           “That was one time and I didn’t know what to do,” said Kathleen. “You sent me in to do an audit. The patient was an elderly woman. She was crying and confused. She didn’t know why she was in the hospital. She looked so sad that I started crying with her. I did leave the room quickly to get your help.”


            “You did. But you never, ever cry in front of a patient! And if you see a patient crying, get them to stop,” said the nurse educator.


            “You sound so stern,” said Kathleen. “But I’ve seen your softer side.”


            “Like when?”


            “It was shortly after I began working with your team. We were doing an audit together, asking patients if they knew their plan of care.


            “You sang a song with a very frail old man.”


            “I have no memory of that,” she insisted.


            “I will never forget it.


            “You asked the patient if we could enter his room. He came out to greet us. He was fully dressed. He was very old and very small. I asked him if we could ask a few questions about his stay. You repeated the questions in Punjabi. As we were about to leave the room, he said something to you. You turned around. He sang a tune and asked you to sing with him. You could have told him you were busy. You could have said there were 29 patients on the unit and you were short-staffed. You could have told him you were in the middle of a meeting, but you didn’t. He gave you a big smile when you stopped singing and his eyes were brimming with tears. I don’t know what you were singing, but it sounded like a lullaby and it meant so much to him.”


           “I don’t remember what you’re describing,” said the nurse educator.


            For her it was just another day. For Kathleen, it was a window into the very special world of what it means to be a nurse.

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