The Heart of a Nurse

By Diane Stonecipher, BSN, RN. The author lives in Texas. Her forthcoming Viewpoint essay in the October issue of AJN, “The Old Becomes New,” will consider aspects of nursing that may be obscured or lost due to overreliance on technology.

Heartstudy by James P. Wells, via Flickr

Heartstudy by James P. Wells, via Flickr

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my initial interest in nursing came as a 10-year-old Yankees baseball fan. I could not get enough of The Mick, Elston Howard, or Mel Stottlemyre on my transistor radio, during televised games, or in my baseball card collection. I decided that I could be the team nurse—take their vital signs, set their broken bones, assess their injuries, and best of all, travel with the team.

This rather irrational desire was solidified when my aunt had a face lift. I was 14 at the time, and she recovered at our house, specifically in my room. She was swollen like a prize fighter, with bloody bandages that needed changing, pain medication to be dispensed, meals to be fed—I was hooked. I am not sure I even knew what a nurse really did, but my heart was stirred.

I sailed through high school, graduated with honors, and left for one of the three state universities that had a nursing school in Florida. With a limited number of spots, I discovered admittance required more than just grades. You needed some kind of hands-on experience, a family member in the medical field, or some reason to stand out among others. The latter my only option, I simply persevered by doing well and wanting it more. On my third try, I was accepted and my life education really began.

Nursing school was both exciting and terrifying. I was seeing things that I’d never seen before, and I now felt privy to a world of wonder. Babies brought forth; precise incisions, neatly sewn, healing almost magically; and all sorts of “conditions” for which there were treatments.

About the time I was alight with the goodness of this profession I had chosen, I also began to witness the losses, the sadness, the unfairness and the pain that is the flip side of the body’s amazing life.

The very first preop patient I had by myself, as a new nurse on nights, could not sleep. He did not want the sleeping pill that was ordered. He wanted to talk. After my rounds, I sat spellbound at his bedside. I learned a great deal about Homer C.—he’d had an interesting life and he was a good storyteller. When he died on the table the next day, something I had never considered a possibility, I cried like I had known him my whole life.

When I moved to Houston and worked at a large medical center, I took report for the 3–11 shift on Mr. B. He was a young, strong firefighter, struck out of nowhere by some malevolent vascular anomaly that had already taken the tips of his nose, ears, fingers, and toes. This readmission was to amputate his right hand and forearm and left lower leg. These incisions were not magically healing, and Mr. B knew what that meant. When I entered the room for the first time I was unprepared for the fragility of this once healthy father of four. In my inexperience, my mouth slightly agape, tears welling in my eyes, I apologized for my sadness.

“I’m sad, too,” he said. He wanted no more surgeries; enough was enough. Many weeks and too much pain later, he died quietly on my shift.

I made rounds in the hospital on Mr. R because he was a patient of an incredible cardiologist I worked for. I had seen him and his wife in our office adjacent to the hospital for years. A collector of clocks, at least in retirement, he had the gifts of passion and patience. I looked through his chart, went to his room to find him awakening from a nap. I greeted him happily and he looked at me, unable to say a word. He had suffered, in his sleep, a massive stroke, one that would take his life within days. I will never forget the eyes of someone I’d come to care for and about, the way they looked at me with such  vulnerability. I too was speechless. I fumbled for the emergency cord, never left his side until he was down in the radiology suite.

Later in my career, working for a gifted surgeon, I discovered that I could carefully dress wounds for weeks and months, whether or not they were likely to ever get better. While there was great satisfaction in a wound that was improving, there were also great connections to be made in these daily duties. You can’t help but look at your patients differently when you now know their life stories, how much they love their families, their joys and fears.

Often I had to go to the surgical waiting room and give updates, when my boss could not. Some of these expectant families I had met the night before and some I had known for many years, almost like my own family. Sometimes this was simply to let them know that things were taking longer than we thought or we’d gotten a late start. Other times, things were looking grim, and giving that information was in essence preparing them for the possibility of a bad outcome. Sometimes, I felt that the words that came to me were just the words that I would want to hear myself. I cared about this person too.

As nurses, we are drawn to the field for many different reasons. What is exciting and fulfilling to some is stressful and boring to others. Our ability to show compassion is perhaps our best nursing skill, better than our proficiency with machines, computers, and even procedures. It may not be what we do so much as how we do it.

It turns out that I never did become the team nurse for the Yankees, but I had the heart of a nurse all along.

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Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Amy Ruff May 4, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    This is a really beautiful article, thank you. We at Transcendental Meditation for Nurses ( realize the great importance of nurses caring for themselves so that they are able to care for others in the most compassionate way, and can remain in the profession rather than experiencing burnout.

  2. Mary S Younkin RN January 22, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    “It may not be what we do, so much as how we do it”. I believe this is what makes the difference between a good nurse who does their best for their patients, and those just in it for the money and the bragging.

  3. The Heart of a Nurse – 4782 January 22, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    […] Source: The Heart of a Nurse […]

  4. veronicacheney May 27, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Reblogged this on A Nurse's Life .

  5. Judy Gussett May 20, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    I can’t remember wanting to be anything in life but a nurse and a mother. I always worried about pts. after i left for the day hoping everthing was done, and praying that they made it through the night. I am retired now but have discovered that once a nurse always a nurse, it is not just a profession it is who we become.

  6. deeqa May 20, 2014 at 7:45 am

    Being a nurse in the NHS in uk is different I guess.we all came into a professional hoping that our patients get the best possible care they deserve. But my heart breaks with all the bureaucracy facing us, more paperwork,targets to meet,job satisfaction very low with increasing healthcare costs or resources. Many nights I have gone to bed thinking if only I had more time to stay with the dying or prompted the malnourished or done abcd…regrets regrets. Too few hands to help and more demanding relatives and friends. And they do have the right to complain, they paid into the tax system that does not meet well desrved care. We lack home grown professionals and rely on overseas nurses who are very transient and who would blame them with new border control Acts taking place.And then we are back to square one, lack of staff! Fewer uk grown nurses as some feel they don’t want to be part of a demanding low paid profession. But our kindled spirit goes on, put on our uniform, lace up shoes and keep on going for more because that’s all we know and do it humanely.

  7. Gerri January September 16, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    All nurses really need to have a heart filled with compassion and available to their patients, families, friends, colleagues and for themselves as well. The field of nursing cradles some of the finest human beings in its ranks.

  8. Becky Lehr, LPN August 19, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    As an LPN for 18 years, I must confess that I like being an LPN. Nothing raises my ire more than someone asking me when I plan to become a nurse. I AM a nurse! It takes all of us working together, and LPN’s are just as important as the rest of the team, from caregivers and CNA’s to RN’s to MD’s. Please do not make the mistake that we are not nurses – I am happy to be able to spend more time with patients than the RN’s who are burdened with more and more paperwork every day.

    Just as “it takes a villiage to raise a child”, so too, does it take many professionals to make a medical team. Let’s go show ’em! ^_^

  9. lifecoachrn August 19, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Great article that is a reminder why most of us stay in nursing.

  10. Nancy gatmaitan August 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    I was blessed to go to nursing school with this amazing author and to be her friend for life. Thank you, Diane, for your beautiful words and perspective of this wonderful nursing career.

  11. Sandy S August 16, 2013 at 7:43 am

    My daughter is considering a career in nursing…..I have passed this along to her as a way to convey the joys and the sorrows of our profession…..thank you….

  12. Lori K August 15, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    This link was sent to me by a family member who said it reminded her of me. Having spent the majority of my life 36 years, building and continuing a career in nursing I had to read it. I sit here wiping the tears from my face knowing and feeling all too well what the author has felt and written. I know that I am a nurse and healer and would not change any of the experiences I have had and continue to have daily. Those experience have been exhilarating, exciting, joyful, hopeful, sad, anxious, depressing, and many times peaceful as either the goal has been reached or the patient has been assisted to the end of life with dignity and compassion. Those people that I have had the opportunity to care for have enhanced my life in so many ways I can’t even begin to catalog them all. I am grateful to all who have crossed my path. Thank you for the touching article .

  13. Calli P. August 15, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Thank you for writing this article! It really helped me see the truth of nursing! I am taking my basics to get into nursing school. I really feel a calling to this field. It started when my dad had quadruple bypass surgery. I stayed by his side the whole 4 days and watched the nurses who cared for him in the NICU. I could see my self in their shoes. They had the compassion that I have in my heart! My whole family is in the nursing field so I guess it might be a bit genetic! Thank you again and God Bless!

  14. Lois Gerber August 15, 2013 at 9:47 am

    The strong nurse/patient connection heals. A two-way street that impacts the nurse as well as the patient.

  15. houseofnurse August 15, 2013 at 2:02 am

    cool..i’m a nursing do you do ^^

  16. Wendy August 14, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Please don’t become a nurse just because the current job market pushes you in the direction of a healthcare career. And when you make the critical decision that you have the ethics and compassion to join us, don’t settle for the shortest possible route. If you can manage it, shoot for a degree. I believe to become professional, it takes the effort required to get a degree. Employers have a problem, because a nurse can be so many things.. we need to homogenize to the highest standards. And employers, #1 don’t lump all staff under one umbrella, #2 nurses should be managed by nurses, and #3 recognize those who have made the extra educational effort to become RN BSN. On the other hand, treat any RN as professional, and she/he will more likely be one. -Do MDs have rigid clock-out-for-lunch requirements? Should nurses? -Unions are the only way to get a salary earned? Really?!?

  17. V, Irish August 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    You do have the heart of a nurse. So do I, although it took twenty years in other professions for me to figure it out. I’m in homecare now and each of my clients loves me for my ability to care about them as I care for them.

  18. Marianna Crane August 14, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Thanks for showing the truth of nursing–not everyone can do this job. It’s not only the technical proficiencies that make a good nurse but the ability to connect with those whose lives depend on us. Thank you for such a touching and memorable story.

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