The Heart of a Nurse: Lessons beyond the Textbook

Janice Meisenhelder

A Nurse Educator facilitates learning in all aspects of nursing care: body, mind, and soul. Faculty equip students with the emotional fortitude and insight to give holistic care. Below are a few examples of the encouragement I provide my nursing students in order to support them emotionally, as well as academically.

Becoming a nurse requires more than scientific knowledge and expert skill. Becoming a nurse entails growing the heart of a nurse: emanating care from one’s soul and providing a continual therapeutic presence for patients and families. Three of the qualities included in providing such heart-felt care are courage, composure and compassion.

Nurses act with courage, even in conflict.

Nurses are leaders. We advocate for our patients and their families. We make decisions regarding the best care and form clinical practices and institutional policies. We enter the profession to care, to nurture, to heal and to have a positive impact on those in pain and suffering, as well as to promote health for everyone. Most often, we fail to expect the pot shots: the criticism or push-back from our most helpful and altruistic efforts. Taken by surprise at the rebuttal, we easily feel crushed, misunderstood, confused and discouraged.

As a nurse, you must realize that conflict is part of leadership. Criticism accompanies decision making. All famous leaders and innovators faced harsh disapproval and huge road blocks. They believed in what they were doing and kept going. As a nurse, you must do the same.

Focus on the joy of knowing you are helping others in the best way that you can do so! Remember that you are uniquely educated and skilled in the nursing arts and sciences, in the therapy of healing and caring, and specifically equipped in attributes that are uniquely you. We all bring our own magical insight and interaction to our nursing practice. Expect the pot shots, but don’t let them stop you. The heart of a nurse shows courage to do the right thing at all times, no matter who may disapprove.

Emmanuel College has been a leader in nursing education for over 40 years; currently, the School of Nursing offers a four-year undergraduate nursing program, a master of science in nursing program, as well as an online RN-to-BSN program.

Nurses stay composed, even in chaos.

Nurses walk into chaos every day: hysterical families, disoriented and agitated patients, and sudden medical emergencies. If we think we can control these situations, we do ourselves harm.

You can only control yourself, keeping your composure and doing what a skilled, knowledgeable, mere mortal can do to ease the situation. Your primary goal needs to be your own inner peace, bringing this calm to a sometimes-uncontrollable situation. Bring your healing, composed self to do some good and make a dent in the bedlam. Aim for calm in the midst of chaos, accepting that uncontrolled turmoil is sometimes inevitable and unavoidable, in spite of our best therapeutic efforts. Sometimes, keeping yourself at peace is the best anyone can do, and the most any nurse can offer.

Nurses show compassion always.

A son once shared with me how a young nurse brought “pure comfort” in the face of his “extreme devastation.” Recounting the story of his father’s death, this son described how his family was gathered around the ICU bed. At the moment of his father’s death, he looked up and seeing the tears in the nurse’s eyes, he felt deep gratitude for her. Eleven years later, he told me this story of the impactful moment that will never leave him: the feelings of “safety and comfort” provided by that nurse. He could not remember one word, for her deep, therapeutic intervention at the time of crisis for this family came not in sound but feeling. He told me over a decade later of his thankfulness to that nurse who was “willing and open to experience my pain.” She chose to enter his sorrow and be vulnerable to cry, taking the toll of grief on herself in order to provide him and his family with unspoken comfort. 

You do not need to have the right words, for you already have the right heart. Have the courage to walk with patients and families in their pain, even though it hurts. Please never forget that probably hundreds of people remember you as “that nurse,” that special person who touched their hearts at the most critical moment, even though you may not have realized it. You only hear back from a tiny fraction of people whom you impact, but never doubt the power of your unspoken comfort that radiates from a caring heart.

Janice Meisenhelder
Janice Meisenhelder

Janice Bell Meisenhelder is a professor of nursing at Emmanuel College. She teaches in both the RN-to-BSN and MSN programs, mainly in the areas of research methods and nursing education strategies. Her most recent book provides practical guidance and gentle comforting for bereaved parents: "Surviving the Unthinkable: The Loss of a Child," available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.