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49 Hearing the Stories behind Our Patients’ Words It was September 11, 2001, and I was sitting at home in front of my computer revising the policies and procedures for the women’s health clinic. Shortly after 9 a.m., my husband called from his office. “Turn on the TV,” he said. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” I turned on the TV exactly at the moment the second plane banked to knife into the glass and steel of Tower Two. As many of us did, I stood alternately crying or praying, unable to look away from the screen as the terrible events unfolded. The Pentagon was struck by a third plane. A fourth plane was detected, flying off course, and then it crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, coring a fiery crater into a deserted field. Like a terrifying novel, the plot became more and more convoluted. My first emotion, even before fear, was a diffuse, anguished compassion. I thought of the airline passengers who must have watched as the tower loomed before them. I thought about those people in the tower going about their early morning work routines, and about their families who, just hearing this news, would be frantic wondering if their loved ones were involved. Because I am a nurse, I thought of all the caregivers who rushed to the scene: paramedics, firefighters, policemen and women, doctors, nurses—anyone who thought they could help in any way. Outside my window, it was a beautiful September day. There were birds at the feeder, yellow finches and downy woodpeckers. A young buck picked his way through our woods, a scene so peacefully oblivious that the contrast was bewildering . For seconds at a time, I could almost believe that what was happening on TV was a movie. Then, the towers collapsed, and with them, the naive belief that what happens to others could never happen to us. I called my children because I wanted to hear their voices and know they were safe. My husband tried to phone his elderly mother, who lived eight blocks from the towers and would eventually be without electricity or water, unreachable for Davis text.indb 49 11/12/08 10:00:33 AM 50 the heart’s truth several days. As minutes passed, the broad and diffuse compassion that I’d felt at first became personal and individual. I began calling and emailing New York and Washington friends. Everything else became meaningless. As the days went by, we learned exactly how much and how many had been lost, taught by the faces of the victims staring out at us from handmade posters and by the faces of their grieving families, by the faces of the rescue workers and thosewhostoodapplaudingthem,bythestrainedfacesofourgovernmentofficials and by the faces of the men and women in green scrubs waiting in the streets. Just as our patients become unexpectedly ill, just as thousands of men and women set out on their normal routines and were caught unaware, we became vulnerable. In the wake of the events of September 11, I wondered how we would possibly go on. Just as we had to return to our lives in order to resist fear and terrorism, I decided to reinvest myself in the belief that patients’ stories, victims’ stories, can change our lives and help us to be better caregivers and better citizens. Certainly, in the days following, I learned how the details of individual lives can hone our feelings of compassion into a personal, focused, and active empathy. At one point, I wondered what it would be like to be there, in the thick of it. What if I could be transported from my home in Connecticut, an hour away, and slip into the body of a woman in a Tower stairwell or a nurse waiting to receive victims in the ER, or a mother who’d left her home to stand waiting for news of her son? I wondered what it would feel like to be them. Listening to the tragic storiesunfoldinnewspaperandnewsreportsandhearingtheirfamiliestellstories about their loved ones, we all could, in a metaphorical sense, suffer with them. Maybe this is why the idea of “story” is so important to me. Because we nurses, who often come to our profession filled with that same amorphous compassion— that longing to help people—can, over time, lose sight of the individual patient and become numb to the particular kind of empathy that is difficult to sustain and yet essential to the delivery of excellent health...


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