I recently finished reading, amidst various other books I have going, Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle (I recommend listening to Father Boyle read his book on CD).¹ This book is about his intervention work with Los Angeles area gang members. A highlight of the book is the repeated emphasis on the basic needs of all he encounters, for being known and acknowledged, and for love.
I was quite touched by this statement: "Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a covenant between equals" (p. 77).¹ I paused to reflect on this relationship between healer and wounded, between healer and the one who is in the midst of cancer, or between healer and the one who is past treatment and trying to put the cancer experience behind them. As nurses, we are the healers. Do we, and do our colleagues, perceive our relationship with those in our care as a "covenant between equals"?
People come to us from all walks of life, from all types of life experiences. Often, they place great trust in us; sometimes they displace their personal power and strength on us in ways that set us apart as those all-knowing, all-caring angels of mercy. Newly diagnosed, patients can be overwhelmed, withdrawn, frightened, anxious, in disbelief, and in various states of what I will call spiritual questioning (or "existential plight," as described by Weisman & Worden, 1976).²
At times of disease recurrence or progression, and even at treatment completion, we can see the same. Patients turn to nurses (among others on the team) for answers, for consolation, for mercy, for care, and for acknowledgment that they exist, that their lives have meaning, and that life will go on. Yet, only the individual can know that within himself or herself.
What is this "covenant between equals"?
Working in a hospital outpatient setting, I try to plan my week in advance, based on who might be coming in to the clinic, who I need to call at home and follow up on, or who might be coming in to the hospital for surgery or treatment. Not every day is predictable, of course, as patients call with new concerns, and new referrals come in. Lately, I have been quite conscious of holding particular patients in prayerful, heartfelt thought, in anticipation of my care for them: That I might be present for them in a way that is healing and supportive; or that their heart might be opened to see and do what they need to do to take care of themselves; or that the best resources might be present for them.
We are human beings, as vulnerable as the next persons we see. Can we be vulnerable and strong at the same time? What is this "covenant between equals" in oncology nursing?
- Boyle, G. (2011). Tattoos on the heart the power of boundless compassion [sound recording]. Minneapolis: Highbridge.
- Weisman, A.D., & Worden, J.W. (1976). The existential plight in cancer: significance of the first 100 days. Int J Psychiatry Med, 7(1), 1-15.