By Betsy Todd, MPH, RN, CIC, AJN clinical editor

Illustration by Eric Collins. All rights reserved.

Illustration by Eric Collins. All rights reserved.

Nurses are not always comfortable when a patient’s family member is also a nurse. In AJN’s January Reflections essay, “The Tables Turned,” a critical care nurse describes her attempt to navigate the role change from nurse to family member when her sister is hospitalized with multiple injuries after a bike accident.

Her sister is in obvious pain, but pain management is complicated by a low blood pressure. The author asks her sister’s nurse about alternative analgesics. She writes:

“The nurse, perhaps caught off guard by my question, answered abruptly: ‘I don’t think so. We don’t do that here.’ There was a pause. ‘Don’t do what?’ I asked. ‘We don’t do IV Tylenol,’ she repeated. She did not offer an explanation, an alternative, or say she’d ask another provider… I felt helpless, both as a critical care nurse and as a sister.”

As if to reinforce that the patient’s sister is not welcome to participate in care discussions, the charge nurse soon comes by and suggests that the author “step out to get some rest.”

Of course we don’t know the nurse’s side of the story; perhaps she had already fielded questions from many families that night. In stark contrast to the situation depicted in this essay, when my friend Stella was recently hospitalized after anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest, I was kept well-informed by a terrific team of critical care nurses. They treated me like a colleague, offering detailed updates about my friend’s progress and always listening to my concerns. I felt respected and supported, both as a nurse and as Stella’s friend.

Many of us have had experiences on both sides of the caregiver/family member divide. As caregivers, does our own reaction to nurse family members reflect our level of confidence in our nursing skills? Frustration with aggressive visitors? A lack of empathy? A toxic work environment?

The author notes that this episode, an exception to the otherwise excellent nursing care her sister received, caused her to rethink her own interactions with families. Read about how this experience shaped the author’s caregiving in this month’s AJN. Reflections essays are free.

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