Honor in Indignity

People become nurses to help others and make a difference. But so many of the day-to-day miracles of nursing get lost in the exhaustion, the tediousness, the frustration, and the burn out. Nurses forget what miracles they are as people themselves-not only do they consistently put others first, but they witness pain and suffering everyday as part of their job description. Nurses should also know that they are honor in moments of indignity


Remember that time your entire shift at work was filled with patients praising the saintly work you do, calling on you as the angel that you are, and respecting you as a profession, and maybe even as a person? No? Me neither. I work as an emergency room nurse in an inner-city hospital, and the majority of my day is spent sweating profusely, reassuring patients that I really don't have another sandwich to give them, doling out medication like Altoids, and cleaning up an exotic variety of bodily fluids (how a human can have so many different types and combinations is beyond me). And like nurses all around the world, in all different healthcare settings and specialties, I am sworn at, talked down to, yelled at, and ever so often, threatened. Ahhh, yes. Nursing.

Don't get me wrong. I love being a nurse. Though it was once more pastel Pinterest-esque quotes about healing hands and all heroes not wearing capes that fueled my understanding of what nursing was when I was a student, it is now actual clinical experience as a professional nurse that reinforces to me just what nursing actually is, and how despite so many negative factors, it is also awe-inspiring.

Is nursing a calling? To me, yes. Is it always glamorous? Obviously, no. Nursing is almost impossible to describe, considering its fluidity in its every aspect: the ever-changing amount of difficulty, excitement, and reward, even on a day to day basis. I may never be bored, but I may always be exhausted. Nursing is creative, interactive, and hands-on. It is also rare-I don't believe many other jobs involve such a full body experience of mind, body, and soul.

Last night I had an older patient that was unable to use the majority of the right side of his body due to a previous stroke. He was painstakingly attempting to feed himself applesauce with his working arm. In an effort to give the man a sense of normalcy, and maybe maintain his dignity, I only moved the cup around to ease his interaction with the spoon, and did not attempt to feed him directly or point out anything that had spilled. Finally, after too much fallen food, the man put down his spoon and said, "I'm a disgusting eater." When I tried to reassure him that he was fine, that this was not a big deal, and that honestly, this wasn't even close to the most disgusting thing I had seen all day, he shook his head and put the spoon down. He whispered, "I'm done eating", and turned his head away, even though clearly he was still hungry. I tried to urge him to continue, but my words fell on deaf ears and stubbornly closed eyes.

I went home later that night and told my roommate about what had happened. To my horror I started crying as I told the story (I generally only cry at surprise military homecoming videos and animal deaths in movies). Even so, it wasn't hard for me to know why: the heartbreaking look of frustrating, embarrassment, and finality on that man's face had struck a tender-and-not-yet-burned-out chord within me. What must it be like, to have your mind be as you always knew it to be, but your body will not listen? What is it like to know what you once could do, and to know what you no longer can? What does that type of indignity feel like?

Nursing can take a little bit from you each day, I think. You can give yourself so fully each shift, be it through putting a patient's needs before your own, by going above and beyond what your job description entails, or even just by showing up to take care of someone new when you're still emotionally exhausted from the day before. But even at its most frustrating, its most negative, its most paperwork filled/tiring/disgusting/ridiculous worst, nursing is hauntingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. Because you are a witness to someone else's struggle, to someone else's pain, to someone else's fight against death. It was a moment like yesterday that reminds me to keep my head up, to keep my smile on, to keep pushing myself to be the best nurse that I can be for each patient, because how many other people, other professions, or other job descriptions see such indignity, such heartbreak, such defeat?

To any and all nurses reading this, no matter how often you are disrespected, broken down, exhausted, or burned out, remember that YOU are amazing, special, awe-inspiring, and life changing. You hold the hands, clean the mess, provide the comfort, and witness the heartbreak. You are honor in a moment of indignity.

RN, BSN ER Nurse

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Specializes in Critical Care, Education. Has 35 years experience.

Love me some molly.hershman!!! When I'm old and crumbly, I want my nurse to be a molly.hershman.

FYI, I would have (and have) gotten the old guy a sandwich - much easier to eat one-handed.


256 Posts

Specializes in Adult MICU/SICU.

That was insanely, poignantly beautiful.

It's so awesome to know there are other people out there with tender hearts - wherever you may be (it's also nice to know someone may be willing to take care of me when I'm old, broken).

God bless you Molly Hershman! You rock - most definitely as a nurse, but also as a human being too.


14 Posts

I needed this today. Thanks.


2 Posts

Has 14 years experience.



29 Posts

Has 4 years experience.

As a student you make me want to keep going. I work Home Health with Alzheimer's patients and it can be tough. Thanks for this.


5 Articles; 4,547 Posts

Specializes in critical care.
Love me some molly.hershman!!! When I'm old and crumbly, I want my nurse to be a molly.hershman.

FYI, I would have (and have) gotten the old guy a sandwich - much easier to eat one-handed.

I was going to suggest crackers, if it had to or should be something light. Also, broth in a cup with a lid and straw if you keep that on the floor. Or, you can request a tray of finger foods from the kitchen. If you go the sandwich route, before bringing it, cut it into smaller pieces.

Hugs, OP. Those heartbreaking days are awful.

FranEMTnurse, CNA, LPN, EMT-I

2 Articles; 3,619 Posts

Specializes in LTC, CPR instructor, First aid instructor.. Has 26 years experience.

This article has my 4th vote