An angel with a walker: Encounter with long-forgotten patient gives boost to RN

By Melissa Assink, RN, BSN

Melissa Assink, RNmelissaI was in med/surg for 13 years before moving to hospice, where I have been privileged to work for almost 24 years. At age 5, I was telling people I wanted to be a nurse. I believe it was a vocational passion that God placed in my heart those many years ago. 

A recent loss in my personal life, followed by a visit from a former patient, brought my passion into even clearer focus. 

I had received a phone call from my brother, telling me that moments before our father had suffered a massive heart attack and died. Even though he had been in declining health in recent years, the news felt like it hit me completely out of left field. 

The day of Dad’s memorial service arrived. While the presence of those in attendance was a comfort, it was also overwhelming to greet the many people who joined us to celebrate his life. Some we had not seen for many years, and it seemed they all had stories to share about him. 

One of the first people to approach me after the service was a man who appeared to be maybe 85. He had white hair, was hunched over and used a walker. He came up to me and stood there, staring at me, as if willing me to remember who he was. I drew a blank and asked, "How do I know you?"

His response was amazing: "You were my nurse 30 years ago, when I was in the hospital for five days to have my gall bladder taken out." He said it very matter-of-factly, as though I should remember him out of probably thousands of patients I have cared for over the years. 

Rather flabbergasted, I asked, "Did you know my dad?" He indicated he did not, that he had simply seen the obituary in the paper and wanted to come to the service as a tribute to me, his former nurse.

My mind raced. This dear man had connected me with Dad by recognizing me as a listed survivor in his obituary. It meant that he had to remember my first name and my maiden name from a brief hospital stay more than 30 years ago. 

I wanted to sit down and talk with him about his memories, but he promptly turned, walked out the door and was gone as suddenly as he had appeared. It seemed as if he knew he had accomplished his mission. I was engulfed with people wanting my attention, and it became impossible to follow him.

I have been reflecting on this former patient and his sudden reappearance in my life for several months. It was almost like he was an angel of sorts, sent to remind me how we, as nurses, touch the lives of people in our care at every turn. We sometimes are in good moods, sometimes not so good. We can become distracted by computerized charting, time management and policy and procedure manuals. 

It is easy to sometimes forget that we care for people when they are most vulnerable, sharing in their joys and sorrows in a way we might not always appreciate. We might forget their names by the next day, often as a coping mechanism, allowing us to go forth and care for the next person. We neglect to recognize they often do not forget us so easily. 

This former patient reminded me that we should never take any interaction for granted. We need to be caring and supportive, treating each of our patients with the respect and honor we’d like to experience if we were in their shoes. Our personal issues and circumstances are not important to them. They are watching us at every turn, looking for the light of our knowledge and support to see them through. A hug, a smile, a kind word, a moment of laughter or a shared tear — these are easy to give, but never forgotten. 

I pray I will always remember the responsibility I have to provide love, care and perhaps a moment of joy to the patients and families I interact with every time I put on my name badge. After all, we never know when a white-haired angel with a walker who received our care will cross our path and help us remember why we became nurses in the first place. 

Melissa Assink, RN, BSN, works for Providence Hospice and Home Care of Snohomish County in Everett, Wash. 


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