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The Little Superstitions of Nurses

May 25, 2010

By Marcy Phipps, RN 

The first time I took care of a really sick patient in the ICU I was terrified. I didn’t fully trust my skills or instincts and often consulted with the experienced nurses around me. I was surprised when one long-time nurse suggested that tying a knot in a corner of the bed sheet would keep my patient from dying, at least during my shift. But I tried it. After all, what did I have to lose?

I was greatly relieved when my patient made it through the day. It seemed absurd that a knotted bed sheet could have any effect on life or death, but I didn’t entirely dismiss it—at least on some level.

The nurses I work with don’t discuss superstition any more openly than they discuss spirituality or religion. Most of us, however, have certain notions that we recognize and quietly adhere to.  Not a single one of us will say that it’s a “quiet day.” Nobody will pick up a Sunday paper on the way to work. No matter how difficult our assignment, very few of us will change assignments in the middle of consecutive shifts. Putting a chart together in anticipation of an admission is known to result in the admission being reassigned, and a code cart parked near an unstable patient is acknowledged to “ward off evil spirits.”

I would describe my fellow ICU nurses as scientists. We dislike ambiguity and are most comfortable in the presence of clear evidence, concrete numbers, and calculations. Even so, we hold onto our superstitions. Maybe we’re being silly, but perhaps we are acknowledging (or hoping) that there’s more to life than science.

Marcy Phipps is an RN in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her essay, “The Soul on the Head of a Pin,” appeared in the May issue of AJN.

 

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11 comments

  1. There is much to be said for sympathetic magic. Also people and animals will wait for permission to die. I’ve worked with both for decades.

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  2. [...] A kind nurse came in and tied a knot in the corner of his bed sheet, which she said would ease his passing. I’ve since read that nurses superstitiously tie the bed sheet to keep the patient from dying on their shift. [...]

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  3. Some of nursing superstitions are harmless and help foster a sense of community in the workplace — like never saying the “q” word. However, I find it extremely troubling when nurses bring their religious beliefs to work. I’ve heard nurses offer (initiate!) praying with family members, talk openly to families about the importance of ‘faith in god,’ and so on. Such nurses should be FIRED ON THE SPOT. Any mention of religion by any member of the team, except the Chaplin, is entirely inappropriate. Our country is already woefully scientifically illiterate. We only make things worse when we encourage ‘praying for miracles’ and keeping a terminally ill patient alive by artificial means because the family believes that during the course of the patient’s illness, a “cure” will be found. That’s a perfect illustration of the complete lack of understanding of how medical science/advances actually work. Nurses absolutely MUST check their personal religious beliefs at the door.

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  4. Agree! A too quiet shift is worrisome; and commenting on it is even worse! Redheads REALLY DO bleed excessively, and I’ve heard anesthesiologists agree with that one (I’m an OR RN). The one time I had a patient, coming in for a completely routine, elective hysterectomy, a healthy young woman, say she’d eaten her “last supper”–as a joke—she went into DIC after surgery for NO reason and could not be saved. So….yes, we not only tend to BELIVE in these things, but I think on some level they are true and real.

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  5. [...] Her essay, “The Soul on the Head of a Pin,” appeared in the May issue of AJN, and her post, “The Little Superstitions of Nurses,” appeared on this blog a few weeks back. She emphasizes that all important identifying details of [...]

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  6. We nurses claim to approach our patients with a holistic approach but very few probably even know the difference between soul and spirit. These misunderstandings lead to the ambiguity in the care that we deliver. So nurses begin to mix witchcraft or similar beliefs with “holistic” care and claim that it is being “spiritual.”
    Our spirit only comes from one source; until we discover the Truth of the source we, as nurses, will remain confused in the way we treat our patients. FYI: your “beliefs” are simply that… a belief. There is only one Truth! I also have beliefs but I only have one faith.

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  7. I was telling my minister that I’m a rationalist but still have superstitions. He said, ‘we’re whole people, we’re made that way.’
    Then I went home and lit candles for a difficult job situation. They all went out. I reflected that you can’t make people do what you want them to do by lighting candles. Sad but true.
    Anyway, whatever works and whatever gives you the courage to keep on keeping on.

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  8. Marcy,
    Your posting speaks to the dialectical tensions between the science and art of nursing that are made even more transparent in your critical care setting. Nicely put!! I hope that if I’m ever in need of a critical care nurse I am assigned one who is primarily a scientist, but who is also able to understand that science may not always hold the answers.

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  9. I think you’ve made a great point! We have superstitions where I work, as well. One thing I’ve heard is that some nurses believe that a window needs to be opened for the soul to leave the body and to fascilitate a “good death”. Interesting subject!

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  10. I agree, I will take any “help” I can get when trying to help a sick patient find healing. sometimes ‘medicine’ does not do the soul justice nor provide the correct treatment. call it superstition, faith, luck, or even selfishness at just wanting all those under my care to feel well and safe, I will continue my own rituals in the hopes that I can be the best provider to those who need it.

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  11. Well put! When the stakes are high, I don’t think anyone would deny they’ll take any kind of luck they might be able to get, whether through a knotted bed sheet or what-have-you. These things certainly don’t hurt, and they are like silent little secular prayers for protection and goodwill. It’s so important to acknowledge that science can only go so far in the quest for healing and succor. At times, the language of medicine gets so clinical as to start completely missing the point and lacking humanism. I can’t think of any particular medical terms at this time, but some of them are laughable. Nursing and medicine need holism, integrated approaches so we don’t end up treating patients like lab rats. Acknowledging that hard science is not the only means of treatment, is one step in the right direction.

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