The Dance of Empathy

By Peggy McDaniel, BSN, RN. An infusion practice manager currently based overseas, Peggy has written for this blog a number of times in the past.

by Augustin Ruiz, via Flickr

Although it’s only late October, this time of year finds me pondering holidays past, which were often spent working at a hospital. As a younger nurse, I worked in a neuro-trauma-rehab unit at a large children’s hospital. We had a strong primary nursing model and often cared for the same patients throughout their stay, which could last days, weeks, or months. Memories of patients from that unit and others occasionally come back to mind at this time of year, often spurred by holidays.

One of my first assignments was a beautiful youngster who had suffered a brain injury. It was a difficult case and the family spent many hours on our unit, helping me provide basic care and praying for a recovery. But after more than three months, the child’s strong and previously healthy body stopped fighting and the child passed away, with family at the bedside.

Years later, after being away from this facility, I returned for a short stint as a per diem on the float team. I dropped in to work when and where needed, days or nights. Many of the same people I’d loved working with were still there, and I often floated up to my comfortable “home base.”

One evening, after a long 12-hour day, as I was getting ready to tape report in the lounge behind the nurse’s station, I realized that voices out at the desk sounded familiar. I heard a voice ask, “Does anyone remember my child?” This voice, uttering a child’s name that I couldn’t forget, drew me from the lounge and around to the other side of the desk. The mother and two siblings were there, with a big fruit basket and flowers to leave for the nurses. We hugged and chatted. They couldn’t believe I was there—they had come every year for this anniversary and found fewer and fewer nurses who remembered the person they would never forget. I told them it was a sick call that had brought me in to that unit, and said that for some reason I had been thinking about their family that evening. Though it had been more than 12 years, they weren’t surprised, and I supposed I wasn’t really either.

We touch people as nurses. We provide intimate care such as bathing, dressing, and feeding. We also inflict pain with our touch, although it is done for a reason, with care and concern. How do our patients touch us? Do we let them in just enough so that we can provide emotional support along with the required physical care, somehow without losing our focus and ourselves?

It’s a dance we all must learn and it isn’t mastered without some hurt. When learning a new dance, we often get our toes stepped on, but it makes us more alert, we follow the beat more closely and mind our position. So it happens less and less. We come to know our patients intimately, and they often get to know us as well, and in the process we learn balance. With good mentors, experience, and a little luck, we learn to move ever more gracefully as we provide care for our patients. We develop a personal and unique rhythm.

Many people have asked me over the years: “How did you care for children? It had to break your heart?” After 20 years of dancing, I just smile, and watch out for my toes.

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2016-11-21T13:11:40+00:00 October 25th, 2011|nursing perspective|4 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Bob Roberts October 26, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Nicely written Peggy. Stories like yours is where the difference comes from when somebody truly cares about other human beings and those that are there just for a paycheck. I’ve been in the fire and ems service for a long time and to this day it warms my heart to see others treating patients like a member of their own family. I like to treat others the way I’d want my family treated. Thank you for being such a special person.

  2. Brenda Harper October 26, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Thank you Peggy, this is truly great writing and very moving story. I often say that nursing is really an art more than a science. BH

  3. Shawn Kennedy October 25, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Great insight, Peggy. Brings back memories that are fixed like photographs – patients and families that stayed with me over the years. I particularly remember an elderly woman who I brought to the bedside of her 93 year old husband who had been critically injured in an auto accident. He was heading to the OR and she and I both knew it was the last time she would see him alive. And when he saw her, we realized he knew it, too. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he squeezed her hand. No words, just a look. And then he was whisked away.

  4. nursemomnj October 25, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    This was just beautifully written. It reminds me why I am a nurse!

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