By Marybeth Curtis, RN, BSN, WOCN
It was the first day of clinical in my Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Time to actually bring real patients into the picture! We were visiting a local nursing home to work on our communication skills. Each student was assigned a nursing home resident. We were to spend the day with the patient, interacting, laughing, and assisting them with their daily activities. This was a time for making memories!
Our instructor went over the interpersonal communication worksheet that we would complete as our homework. Once we had our room assignments, we were on our way to meet our first patient! I remember walking into her room. She was lying in bed with her back turned to the door. I walked over to the bed and called the name that was on my paper. “Mrs. Taylor.” “Mrs. Ruby Taylor.” Nothing.
I patted her on her shoulder so not to startle her from her slumber. “Mrs. Taylor.” A wrinkled, slender face slightly turned to smile back at me. Dark brown eyes twinkled through the narrow openings. Some strands of thin, grey hair fell into her eyes as the remainder of her hair stood on end with static electricity working its magic. I remember hiding a startled expression as I noticed a tiny mole perched on the tip of her nose. All I could do was smile back.
I introduced myself. Talking a mile-a-minute, as I usually do when nervous, she just lay there smiling back at me. Never nodding. Never making a sound. Just smiling. I began to sit her up in bed, fluffed her pillow, and straightened her covers. One of the duties on our checklist was to dress the patient, assist them to their wheelchair, provide toileting as needed, and feed them their morning meal. During all of this, we were to make mental notes addressing questions on our interpersonal communication worksheets without being too obvious, of course.
As I leaned over to cradle Mrs. Taylor in my arms, and pivot her to the edge of the tiny bed, she reached her gnarled, little hand to the side of my face. She patted my cheek and pressed her forehead to mine. It felt as though time stood still. I have no idea how long we sat there. I loved her patting my cheek and no one ever pressed a forehead to mine so sweetly. I was in love immediately.
I ready my notes. “Non-communicative,” appeared by Mrs. Taylor’s name. She had not spoken in the past year! What was my teacher thinking? How was I supposed to communicate with her? How was I to complete my assignment? I felt a sense of panic creeping over me. As I looked back at the small-framed beauty at the side of the bed, it suddenly did not matter. I began to brush her thinning, grey hair. She had it in a braid. I brushed it out and sang to her as I gathered up the dangling strands. There! It was a beautiful braid again and Mrs. Taylor’s smile stretched from ear to ear.
I washed her gnarled hands and rubbed them with lotion. I rubbed her legs with lotion and placed socks and shoes on her tiny feet. We chose a blue dress. Well, I chose a blue dress. Mrs. Taylor just smiled and I took that as approval. I talked and talked as I did the things that were necessary to prepare for breakfast. Soon, it was time to eat and she patted my face and smiled as I spooned small bites of oatmeal into her toothless mouth. I noticed I was now the one leaning my forehead against hers as I offered her sips of milk and orange juice. Her happiness engulfed me.
How quickly the time had flown! It was almost time for me to leave. I could not think of leaving my new friend. I told her I would be back. I told her that she was my friend and I loved her. I wanted to have something for her to remember me by so I drew a picture. I drew a bright, yellow sunshine, green grass, and bright flowers. In big, red letters I wrote the words, “I love you, Ruby!” I held the picture in front of her for her to see. She took the picture from my hand and with her crooked index, finger she pointed to the words and said, “I…Love…You…Ruby.”
I was suddenly the one who was speechless! One of the nursing home staff told me it was the first time she had ever heard Mrs. Taylor speak! I was crying I was so happy. I hugged her and kissed her good bye. She patted my face again and smiled. I promised to return soon…to talk. I learned a valuable lesson in interpersonal communication that day I will never forget. As I reflect back, I understand now that you should never go into a situation without looking for hidden treasures. I definitely found mine…and it was a Ruby.
Marybeth Curtis, RN, BSN, WOCN, is a Nurse Educator in the Division of Community Health and Education in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at UAMS.