Learning the Truth Behind The Healer’s Art

As a part of the 50th anniversary of the BYU College of Nursing, a book was compiled called “The Healer’s Art: 50 stories for 50 years.” It has been 15 years since this book was first published and these stories were shared. We plan to regularly post selections from this book to help each of us remember and cherish the experiences of nursing and learning the Healer’s art. 

Learning the Truth Behind The Healer’s Art

Robyn Carlsen

When I began college, choosing a major was hard because I found it unfathomable to have to decide on that one thing I enjoyed enough to commit to for the rest of my life. When I finally chose nursing and began the prerequisites, it made so much sense. I had been sick much of my life with asthma, allergies, kidney stones, and infections; I felt there was no one better to empathize with those in pain. After all, what more could an eighteen year old girl go through? I had been in the hospital more times than all my known acquaintances combined. When I began the nursing program, I was confident in the hospital setting, with the medical terms, and with the seemingly complicated medical technology. I was going to be able to master this profession. I guess I could say I was “prepared” many years before! All of my confident empathy and nonchalance regarding patients vanished one term. It forever changed how I thought about myself and how I interacted with others.

During an oncology nursing elective, I arrived at the children’s hospital outpatient oncology clinic prepared to learn as much as I could about childhood cancer. We saw the first patient around 8:00 am and prepared him to see the doctor and answer any questions. Matt and his mother were waiting inside one of the exam rooms. The nurse had prepared me to see the patient by telling me about the patient’s disease, history, and reason for the visit while walking to the room. Matt was a seven year old who had been diagnosed with Leukemia over a year ago. It had gone into remission, only to be rediscovered a month ago. At the beginning of every patient’s new treatment cycle, they were given a treatment calendar that displayed all the different injections, chemotherapy, and radiation appointments scattered over the next few weeks.

As I went over all of the appointments with Matt and his mother, something sprang alive inside me. Big eyes, scrapes on his knees, and dirty hands all contributed to the picture worthy of a Saturday Evening Post cover. Matt was old enough to know what was happening to his young body. He had not yet had a chance to attend school without this diagnoses hanging over his head. He was learning to read from the books that were stacked next to the IV poles and learning to tell time from the clocks that hung over his chemotherapy. It was an uncertain future for a boy who had barely had time to dream, but still had large ones.

I began to think about all the things he needed and how little my nursing knowledge and hospital experience mattered to this boy with a potentially fatal disease. I knew my controlled asthma, antibiotics, and dreams for the future were not the things that were going to enable me to sympathize with and help these patients. There was nothing I had experienced that would compare to the courage this boy was already required to show the world because of the harsh regular treatments he had to endure and unsure future he looked forward to.

As a student, I had extra time to spend with patients, and I quickly learned pediatric patients loved to play games. I played checkers with him to pass the time. When waiting for a doctor or for a treatment to end, it always seemed like the minutes stretched on for days. I never was very good at checkers and when he beat me for the second time in a row, I smiled and threw up my hands in defeat, “Why do I try playing against a master? You are just too good. Tell me your secrets!” He giggled and looked at me innocently while setting up the checkers for another triumph. We played until his mother got back from lunch, the treatment was over, and he had to leave. I waved goodbye and was rewarded with a blue smile – the product of a large sucker he was given.

I knew the things I had previously relied on to give me the credentials needed to survive nursing heartache and triumph day after day did not include a special insight into hospitalization. I wanted all the patients who were facing the unknown to know that although I had not experienced the many things they were dealing with, I did have something more than understanding: I had love.

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