Patients: the special kind of teacher

2 September 2016

Recent nurse graduate ROSALIE DAVIS shares a poignant nursing and life lesson she learnt from a wise healthcare assistant and a frail dementia patient.

"Brush your teeth twice a day, and floss. You don’t want dentures. They hurt. They’re expensive. You can’t enjoy the same foods. Just trust me.”

That was the first lesson I learnt from a patient and it’s stuck with me.

There will be hundreds of lessons learnt throughout a nurse’s career and hundreds of ‘teachers’ who deliver those lessons, but patients are a special kind of teacher.

They teach us about their diseases, they make us laugh and make us cry. They will restore our faith in humanity or change our outlook on the world. They can teach us so much, sometimes without saying anything.

The first person to open my eyes to this was a healthcare assistant I worked with on my first student placement, which was in a rest home/private hospital. I spent the first week on the rest home side and shifted to the hospital side for the second week.

All of the hospital patients required two or more people assisting them with care; some were unable to speak, to move or to feed themselves. They were disabled by strokes, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s or advanced dementia.

I don’t know what I had expected but the reality shook me. There was one lady in her nineties with advanced dementia. Above her bed hung pictures; she was laughing with friends of a similar age to me at the time. There was another of her looking into her husband’s eyes on their wedding day, deeply in love. In all of the pictures she was so happy and full of life. The lady I saw curled on the bed was a shell of that person.

She barely opened her eyes, and when she did they weren’t warm. There was no sparkle in them, no door to her soul to reassure me that the lady on the wall was still there. They were cold, and faraway. Her nightgown hung from her bony frame. Her skin was paper thin, discoloured and fragile. Her limbs were bent and rigid. I felt a mix of sadness and fear, for what lay ahead for my family, my friends, and for myself; for what this woman once had and no longer possessed. When I looked at her all I saw was a shadow of the woman on the wall. She no longer spoke, no longer laughed or cried. She just lay there.

While we washed her I had tears in my eyes. We finished sitting her up, trying to make her comfortable. When I walked out of the room the healthcare assistant I was working with asked what was wrong. I shook my head and tears crawled down my cheeks.

I tried to explain how I had never seen anyone like this before, in a sort of limbo. I didn’t know what we were doing. We came in each day, washed her, sat her up, fed her and turned her. All little things that we do each day without really thinking about, things she used to do. She had lived, but now? She wasn’t really living. So why was she still here?

How the healthcare assistant responded forever changed my perspective on people, their purposes, and the lessons we can learn from them.

She explained that the lessons the lady was teaching us may be some of the most valuable we are ever taught. While we care for her she is teaching us patience; she is teaching us to be gentle, to care and to be thankful for the little things. All of this can change the way we approach others and approach life. And when it is her time, she will go.

She also explained to me not to look at the lady and see no value in her life – or any life, for that matter. You can learn something from everyone, she continued. If you are open to people and the lessons that they teach you in life, you will see that everyone has a purpose. Even if this lesson is taught without exchanging words.

That is something that has stuck with me as a new nurse. I hope it is a perspective I hold throughout my career and my life. I will also always look after my teeth.

Author: Rosalie Davis is a second-year nurse at Waitemata DHB’s North Shore Hospital. 

Post your comment


  • beautifully written Rosalie - I am sure you will carry this valuable insight into knowing and respecting a person with dementia behind the disease process forever - thank you for sharing. Health care assistants are invaluable members of a multi-disciplinary team!

    Posted by Leanne Bolton, 08/09/2016 1:32pm (3 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments