I have a passion for history and a passion for patients. When the two come together, I am held transfixed, unable to tear myself away. Veteran's Day is an important holiday to honor those men and women who have served to protect our country. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nurses can expect to see more patients who have war stories of what they went through. However, most of the patients we see are those from the Greatest Generation, those who lived and suffered through World War II.
As a nurse, it can be difficult to find time to talk at length about a patient's past. Sometimes, though, these patients need to get their story out. They need to have their pasts heard by someone who is caring and compassionate. Veteran's Day is a great day to take the time to ask about service, but honestly, you can ask on any day. Take the time, even if its just five minutes, to listen to a war story. Say thank you honestly, and give them your attention. Many veterans feel like others don't care, but as a nurse, this is a great opportunity to bond with your patient.
Asking About Service History
I walked into a patient's room one night and saw a book on the table. I recognized it because I had read it myself. It was Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, the book that the popular HBO miniseries was based on. Thinking I found another military historian, I asked him if he liked the book, what he thought about it. He replied, "I lived it. I was in the 101st Airborne Division in World War II." What followed was a fascinating account about how he and his buddies parachuted into Normandy and led the spearhead that eventually ended up in Germany itself. I would have stayed longer, but unfortunately, med pass was calling.
I remember this conversation because it was extraordinary. What was merely a history lesson to me was this man's life. If you find a patient who mentions their military service, it doesn't hurt to ask about it. Some are delighted to relate their stories. You may have pressing matters that you need to take care of, but ask your questions while providing care. It doesn't take too much time to listen, and your patient may feel grateful that you cared enough to ask. Instead of merely performing the actions of your job, take the time to make the human connection and care for more than just their body.
Honoring Our Veterans
I usually worked night shift, and the weather outside one night was blustery and cold. I entered a patient's room and noticed him sitting by the window, a frown on his face. Concerned that he was in pain, I asked him what was wrong. He pointed to the flag outside his window. "That flag shouldn't be flying in this weather, and it isn't lit properly. I suffered for the flag, and I hate to see it disrespected." I was taken aback, never having heard these rules before. I assured him I would do everything I could to take care of it. I sent a message to the comments department of my hospital, and a new light was installed shortly thereafter.
Veterans want to be honored, and this man was rightfully upset that the flag was not being cared for properly. Of course, there wasn't much I could do as a simple floor nurse, but I did express my sympathy and empathy. He cared for that flag, and it hurt him to see it in the rain. No matter what your political persuasions, service men and women have given a great sacrifice for their country. Rather than focusing on what those wars meant, focus instead on what these people gave. Even if you couldn't care less about the flag or patriotic overtures, your patient may, and it is all about them. Do what you can to listen, fix what you can, and keep your opinions close to the vest.
Dealing with Reluctant Soldiers
I was working in a nursing home as an activities aid when I met a nice older woman who had suffered a broken hip. Her husband was always with her, helping her when he could. I noticed he had a long scar that extended from just under his right eye, crossed his mouth, and ended at his left jaw. I'm not sure what got us talking about history, but he admitted he was in World War II. However, he didn't want to talk about it. You could see in his eyes that something haunted him about his time in the war. In the end, he gave me a typed up copy of a short biography his son convinced him to write. He had killed. He had been left for dead when he got his wound. When I saw him again after reading it, he said, "I hope you don't think any less of me."
Some patients will not want to talk about their service, and that's quite alright. War is, indeed, hell, and many veterans don't want to relive it. If you notice a tattoo or a scar that may indicate service, you can ask casually, but don't be surprised if the patient clams up. Some memories have never even been expressed to their families, and they aren't likely to express them to you. Instead, thank them for their service, offer to lend an ear if they ever feel like talking, and allow the conversation to drift to other topics. As with all sensitive issues, nurses need to be discreet and careful when probing for information, especially a history that likely doesn't impact their medical history.
That said, Veteran's Day should not be ignored. It is November 11th, which happens to be the date the Germans surrendered in World War I. Take the time out from your schedule to talk to a veteran. At the very least, thank them for their service. They sacrificed in service, as nurses do to an extent, and the urge to give to others can give you a common ground for a deeper connection with your patient.