Once in a while a patient will say something that makes me stop in my tracks and re-examine what I'm doing as a nurse. This man was in bad shape; his main problem was polycythemia vera. He had had both legs amputated above the knee, and was rather non-compliant about his care. Part of the problem was that he had no family to help him care for the wounds and had trouble doing it himself. Not surprisingly, he developed cellulitis and had endured a hospital stay earlier in the month to have his stumps surgically debrided. After that he went to a skilled care facility, but he left there after one day. Now he was back. Not only was he septic, he had several pulmonary emboli, and his stumps were so bad they smelled of rotting flesh. At first his doctors weren't sure he was going to live. I had been caring for him for a couple of days, monitoring his condition and his vitals and trying to keep him comfortable.
Parts of his care weren't easy. He was on high flow Aquanox oxygen, but I couldn't get an accurate reading from an oxygen saturation monitor because he of his severe peripheral vascular disease. I finally took his hand in mine and held it, hoping to get a better reading. As I did, he gasped, "Oh, the touch of human hands feels so good!" Shame washed over me and made me feel small. I had been so worried about getting a good 02 sat and getting his numbers up, I had forgotten there was a person behind the numbers. I realized in that instant that I had been focused on the machines and the stats, rather than on the human being they represented. When he came in I had noticed in passing how young he was, only in his early 50's, and some part of me had realized that he had no family and very few friends to come see him. But it didn't really register that, in essence, he was alone. Now I couldn't imagine how that must feel.
I resolved at once to be a better caregiver to this person, and silently thanked him for bringing me up short and making me take a hard look at myself. I started making time to stop in and see him, and when I was in his room I would put my hand on his, or give him a back rub, anything I could do to give him some real human contact. As he started to feel better, he frequently recalled that single touch. He called me his Angel, and would tell anyone who came to see him about the back rubs and such that made him feel better while he was so sick. If I was his Angel, then he was my Wake Up Call. Since then, I have really worked at being not just a care giver, but a person who cares. That human touch can make all the difference in a patient's outlook, and hence in their recovery. I'm going to make sure they get it.