Human Feelings, Human Experiences
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88 Human Feelings, Human Experiences I think a lot about the meaning of words. Years ago, listening to the news, we heard the phrase “shock and awe” used to describe the massive, initial bombing of Iraq, a display of might and power meant to shock Saddam Hussein into surrender . Then, when his soldiers didn’t immediately give up, some announcers talked about how “shocked” they were by Iraqi resolve. We nurses are no strangers to shock or to awe. Surely we have a special understanding of how disaster and illness can shock us, whether we are patient or provider. Certainly we’ve also experienced firsthand the phenomenon we call awe, what my dictionary describes as “the mixed emotion of reverence, dread, and wonder.” Maybe we’ve been awed by a patient’s bravery. Maybe we’ve been patients ourselves, shocked by illness and amazed at both the fragility and the resilience of the human body. I’d like to think it’s our capacity to experience shock and awe that enables us to interact humanely with patients, to touch their lives and enrich our own. But shock and awe take their toll. How often have we thought that we couldn’t standtowitnessanymoresuffering?Howmanytimeshavewebeenoverwhelmed by the roadblocks we must negotiate in order to help a patient? And what about the joy and poignancy that is also a part of our profession? What do we do with the mixed emotions that come our way—pain, helplessness, happiness, the sense of loss as well as the recognition of transcendence? I have a friend, a nurse, who recently took up photography. Her black-andwhite photos are evocative: gravestones in snow; the shadows of teenagers loitering on the streets; the side-glance of an elderly woman. She says that looking through an artistic lens instead of a clinical one renews her spirit and brings her comfort. Another nurse friend is an actress. When she plays a role, she becomes, for a time, another person. This helps her understand the narratives of her patients’ lives from alternative points of view. When another nurse friend was Davis text.indb 88 11/12/08 10:00:39 AM human feelings, human experiences  89 diagnosed with breast cancer, her response was to paint her emotions, documenting them on canvas. My choice is creative writing; poetry and stories that give voice to my fears about death, suffering, abandonment, and loneliness, as well as to my celebrations of birth, relationship, and love. There’s something about the act of putting words on the page that helps me look again at my experiences. Often, I write about moments of shock and awe. Always, I wonder what other nurses, other providers, are doing to help themselves cope. The author Saul Bellow said that poetry helps “human feelings, human experiences , the human form and face, recover their proper place—the foreground.” Of course, no nurse or doctor would ever argue against having “the human form and face” in the foreground. That’s why we went into health care. At the same time, many caregivers believe they’re not creative—after all, so much of our time and energy go into achieving clinical excellence. Doctors have realized the importance of using literature as a way to balance the imagination and the scientific for quite some time. Many medical schools incorporate the humanities into their curriculum. Many physicians publish their poems and stories, allowing readers to discover another side of medicine, one that wrestles creatively with the shock and awe patients and their caregivers know so well. Many nurses are writing too, beautifully, about their work—and yet, as a profession, nursing has not yet embraced literature as an essential part of nursing education. Let me extend both a challenge and an invitation. The challenge is to nursing educators: please, please incorporate the arts and humanities into nursing programs. Let’s not miss this opportunity. Give our students a way to dialogue creatively, helping them use the arts to make sense of all they will encounter in the changing world of health care. And if you already teach humanities in your program, get the word out. Let others know how to use the arts to enhance nursing education. If you’re a student nurse, ask your instructors to talk about how nursing is represented in literature, not the clinical writings but the poems, novels, and stories. If you’re a practicing nurse, seek out what other nurses have to say. We are a privileged group, and...


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