Early in my career, I worked in a number of acute care and public health settings as a registered nurse. During those years, I had the honor of serving hundreds of patients and their families. Having lived in the same area my whole life, it isn’t uncommon for people to approach me years (or sometimes decades) later with a warm smile and familiar greeting only to be met with my blank expression and embarrassed admission that I don’t recognize them. They don’t ever seem to take my admission personally and gladly share their memories, hoping to jog mine. They say things like, “You came to my home after my first baby was born and helped me cope with his colic.” Or, “You took care of my dad after his heart attack,” and, “You were the nurse with me through my labor and delivery.”
Like many health professionals who have been in their fields for years, I forget the details of all the many care encounters I’ve had. But what never ceases to amaze me is that the patients don’t forget. Why? Because, as caregivers, we become part of their life story. We come into their lives at a time when they are hurting, vulnerable, scared, and in need of competent, compassionate care. And in those often brief encounters, we have the opportunity to contribute to their story in some way. Whether or not that contribution is positive or negative is largely determined by how we engage, empathize, and communicate during these sacred moments.
It’s important to remember that, even though you may have countless patients over the course of your career, a patient may only have one significant medical encounter and will remember you. The take-away? Make every encounter count!