Alicia Anderson says she was a certified nursing assistant for four years until she actually understood the importance of her relationship with her patients. “I certainly cared about my patients before then but after I spent some time in the hospital, I looked at my job a little differently,” Anderson says.
The 29-year-old Chicagoan’s newfound dedication to her job began in the spring of 2013 while vacationing with her sisters in Florida. Anderson suffered numerous injuries after the car she was driving was hit by a drunk driver. “I was immobilized,” she says. “I couldn't go to the bathroom, I couldn’t feed myself. I couldn’t do much of anything for myself the first couple of weeks.”
Recovering in a hospital in Tampa, Florida, Anderson says she came to truly appreciate the work the nursing staff put in to help her and other patients. “I'm not saying what they were doing was different from what I did but I just realized it from the other side of the hospital bed,” Anderson says. “You can treat a lot of people and you can be polite and friendly but that doesn’t mean you’re making a human connection. These nurses – wow – they made a connection. They made me feel like I was the center of their universe.”
More than anything else, Anderson says her stint in the hospital taught her the importance of eye contact. “I've never been one of those people who was good at looking directly at someone when I’m talking to them. My eyes go down to the end of the bed or I look at my hands. I just didn’t do a great job of making that connection,” Anderson says. “When I went back to work and started making my rounds again, I really focused on looking at people – really looking at them and acknowledging what they were saying, and it made a huge difference for them and for me.”
William Avanti, a social worker in Los Angeles, specializes in working with senior patients. He says the value of eye contact can’t be downplayed. “It really is everything to a patient, especially when they have no friends or relatives who visit them on a regular basis,” he says. “Staff are the only people who may see them for several days, weeks or months in a row. It's an interesting dynamic. Some people get very close to their nursing staff in a hospital room or an assisted-living facility and those relationships are often based on positive interactions. They’re based on connections.”
Still, eye contact can be difficult for many health care professionals, especially if they feel intimidated or uncomfortable in front of their patients. “I think there's definitely a hang-up when younger nurses work with older men and women, especially if those patients have lead successful lives,” says Stacey Cross, a registered nurse in Joliet. “I think [the nurses] feel like they might be more of a servant than an actual nurse. And that's problematic. You're not giving your patients the best possible care because you might be playing it safe. Good nurses aren’t afraid to speak their minds. If necessary, they’ll take their patients out of their comfort zones.”
Avant says it’s important to be responsible for your patients and not push the work off onto others, especially in rehab situations. “You'll find that some staff have a hard time accepting any pushback from patients so instead of dealing with it, they decide to let someone else take the lead,” he says.
Cross says that's entirely possible. “I would defer to other nurses when there was someone I had a hard time dealing with,” she says. “I would just want to keep a working relationship with those patients because I knew I'd be with them for the next month, if not more, but I didn’t want to make waves.”
Cross says she overcame that approach after a doctor pulled her aside and told her she wasn’t making eye contact with her patients. “She wasn’t polite about it either,” Cross says. “It was like ‘hey, you think you’re the hired help? These people aren’t going to listen to you if you don’t look them in the eye. You need to get in their faces if you have to. You need to make them realize that in this hospital, you’re the one in charge.”
Cross remembers how that conversation ended. “After this tough-guy approach where she’s all up in my face, she tells me that everything I do, I have to do with love. She said if the patient knows you care, you can be as direct as you want,” says Cross.
After Anderson’s stay in the hospital, she decided to go back to school and become a registered nurse. “Nursing is an all-hands-on-deck job when you’re working in a hospital or ER. The patients don’t care about your degree,” Anderson says. “But I realized the more I learned, the more I could be in a position to help. And my teachers always told me that the perfect nurses have the right mix of knowledge, compassion and speed. You can teach me what I need to do and even how I can do it quickly but after that accident, I had to learn compassion on my own,” she says. “And that was probably my best lesson ever. ”