The Speed of Patience: Notes On Navigating Hospital Hallways

The Speed of Nurses

'She Observes,' ink on paper, 2005 by Julianna Paradisi

‘She Observes,’ ink on paper, 2005 by Julianna Paradisi

A while ago, my stepfather had surgery at the hospital where I work. After spending a long day in the waiting room, my husband and I left the post-surgery unit. As we walked down the narrow hallway towards the main lobby, a young man, his girlfriend trailing behind by the hand, came around a corner from the opposite direction too quickly. They headed towards the elevator. We narrowly avoided collision. Had either my husband or I been disabled, someone might have been injured.

As he pulled the young woman into the elevator, he sniped at us sarcastically, “I’m not rude!” Rude or not, he was obviously unfamiliar with the traffic flow of hospital hallways.

Hospital hallways accommodate two types of travelers: staff and patients/visitors. These groups travel at speeds established by urgency and limited by ability.

For nurses, getting to a patient’s room fast may mean saving a life, or simply providing an emesis basin to preserve a patient’s dignity. Among nurses, a lack of urgency (the inability to act fast) is viewed as a character flaw.

Although I am no longer a bedside nurse, as a nurse navigator I often need to get to pre-surgery quickly to comfort an anxious patient before the OR team rolls them away, or meet a new patient before a physician consult or imaging scan.

The Speed of Patients

Being a nurse, however, has also deepened my respect for the dignity of the old and infirm, even if it means cooling my jets during the work day. All of us will join the ranks of the old and the infirm if we live long enough. And that’s what nurses do—we help people to live long enough.

I’m not alone in this sentiment. I watch colleagues slow down their busy pace to allow patients and visitors time to reach their destinations. We are busy, with responsibilities demanding our presence, but slowing down to the speed of patients is a part of nursing.

Courteous attention is required in hospital hallways. The speed of travel varies considerably. Patients and visitors using canes, walkers, and wheelchairs frequent hospitals. They’re the reason we (staff) are here. Unintentionally, often self-consciously, they slow down staff trying to get from one department or floor to another quickly, because there’s little room to pass. Here are a few examples:

  • A woman pushes a walker for balance; her posture straight and tall as the mast of a sailing ship. She glides down the middle of the hallway. Her chiffon scarf billows gently behind her like a sail. Staff step aside to either wall to let her pass, then resume their trek down the hallway, like the wake behind a ship.
  • Into a hospital elevator, a man pushes a woman in a wheelchair, requiring three people, including myself, to shift positions to accommodate them, while holding the elevator. “I’m sorry,” the woman repeats several times. “Don’t apologize,” I try to reassure her. “You’re welcome.”
  • Another day, a man runs past, wearing an open-backed gown,and the color-coded slipper socks identifying him as a fall risk. He’s steady enough on his feet, but I notify hospital security in case a nursing unit calls, looking for their missing patient.


Other variables that have an impact on speed of travel in hospital hallways are space (the width of the entrance or hallway) and utility (a narrow hallway functioning as both an entrance and an exit leads to bottlenecks, slowing traffic flow).

Newly constructed hospitals incorporate wide hallways into their design, promoting physical access for patients and busy staff. But older hospitals lacking funding, or more likely, the room to remodel, rely on patience and courtesy between staff and patients to keep things moving.


I don’t doubt that the young man pulling his girlfriend through the hallways of the hospital the evening he nearly collided with my husband and me was anxious to reach a family member or friend as quickly as possible. Perhaps it was the first time he was confronted by disease or accident threatening the life of a loved one. In the moment, the only thing important to him was reaching that someone as fast as possible.

He hasn’t had time to adapt to the speed of patience.

2016-11-21T13:00:53+00:00 October 27th, 2016|Nursing|0 Comments

About the Author:

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, finds inspiration where science, humanity, and art converge, creating compelling images as both a writer and a painter. She is the author of, and also blogs frequently for and, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN).

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