Should nurses share their own health stories with patients?


A recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air explored the topic of medical workers sharing their own health stories with their patients. It got me thinking about my own  choice to not share my personal medical history with patients. I didn’t before. But I do now.

You see, until recently, I didn’t tell any patients that I had cancer. There was never really a reason. I mean, I guess if I’d had a patient who’d had surgery for a half-centimeter polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma on her right palate with my surgeon, I might have told her about my own cancer experience, but that chance never presented itself.

It’s not like the respiratory therapist I work with, who, while being a weird guy, is also a very nice guy, and who assures the stroke patients that they, too, will survive and thrive after their strokes, just as he has. You just don’t bring up “Oh, hey, by the way, I’ve got the big C” to patients unless there’s a reason.

But now I’ve found that I have the reason to share my story. I have the opportunity more often than I ever expected. I have patients who haven’t seen a dentist in a decade, patients with weird lumps and bumps on the floor of the mouth that they haven’t had checked out. I tell them to get themselves tested…and why.

And then I have patients who simply ask outright why the hell I talk so funny. And I tell ’em: I had cancer and had my palate removed, and the prosthetic makes me talk funny, but I’m cancer-free now.

Sometimes, when I’m called to start an IV on a patient who has JP or Penrose drains coming out of her neck, I ask, “Cancer?” When the patient nods, then presses the pain-pump button, I stick my hand out and say, “Me, too.”

We shake hands and I nod once, and then I stick her.

What do they see? Probably nothing they’ll remember, given the pain meds and the anesthesia, but:

Cancer is like a swimming pool. When you get the diagnosis, you’re shoved suddenly up the ladder onto the high-dive. You’re essentially alone, staring down into a pool full of people. (This is not to diminish the efforts of doctors and surgeons and nurses; it’s just…well, you’re on your own. It’s you, and this thing that’s trying to kill you, and that’s really it at 3 a.m.) Some people have really nice floaties and some people tread water, and you can see that some people are exhausted.

And you have no chance but to jump.

When you look at the water, you notice that there are people who are sitting around the edges of the pool. Some of those folks have their feet in the water. Others are on nice comfy lounge chairs, with novels and fruity drinks. They’re completely dry. Still others are coming up the ladders or up the stairs, soaking wet, and looking for a towel.

You promise yourself as you jump that you will get a lounge chair and a cabana boy and a fruity drink. You promise yourself, as you’re falling, that eventually you’ll be out of the pool and dry, and that you’ll be able to shout to the people who are still in the pool, without having to get wet again. You swear up and down that this’ll happen somehow, even if you’ve never taken a swimming lesson in your life. Then you hit the water, and it’s all overwhelming.

If I’m doing my job right, the people I talk to will see me standing on the edge of the pool. I’m still soaking wet, and I haven’t found a towel. I’m yelling at them, telling them that the water will hold them up if they just relax and float. (Floating, letting the water hold you up, is not the same as not fighting—it’s just using your strength in a wiser way.) I’m not dry yet, and there isn’t a lounge chair free yet, but I’m on the edge of the pool.

This post originally appeared in The Head Nurse blog.

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Agatha Lellis

Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at

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4 Responses to Should nurses share their own health stories with patients?

  1. ibatxrn RN

    Excellent analogy. So true. We can help our patients in so many ways that we are not taught in nursing school. In fact, we are taught that it is “about the patient” and not to discuss ourselves. I find that my patients want to know more about me. We are with them in their most vulnerable situations. Wouldn’t you want to know something about them? If appropriate and I feel it will only give my patients hope, I tell them what I am going through and that I have survived so far and wear a smile. Sometimes that is all they need. That connection is to me, what nursing is all about.

  2. I think there are many valid reasons to share your health story with patients. The primary being that story telling is a powerful educational tool. It can also help a stressed patient feel more at ease.

  3. Elizabeth Scala

    Totally agree that storytelling is needed in nursing. If it’s within context and makes sense to share, why not? We all learn through story. I won’t remember boring statistics, overwhelming facts, and tedious figures- but you can be sure that I will learn something from story. It’s because we are human beings and we connect via emotions. Share a story with a patient and they are much more likely to take healthy action. Great post! Elizabeth

  4. ladyveteran

    I do share some of my history. Just yesterday I took care of a patient with a back stimulator just like I have. She asked my about my bracelet. I wear a medical alert one indicating that I can’t have an MRI. She looked at me funny than said, “Well I know I can’t have one.” I told her what if she were in an accident and couldn’t speak for herself? What if your medical records aren’t accessible at the hospital you are taken to? She immediately understood the significance of the bracelet. She is going to order one ASAP. Oh and add she has a life threatening allergy to penicillin! So in this case, sharing may be life saving!
    I also have shared my journey that led to getting the stimulator. The pain, the lack of answers, the ups and downs, the times I’ve thought I was going crazy because they can find “no medical reason” for the pain. All the specialists I’ve seen trying to find a reason (vein, ortho, pain, neuro, GP, emergency, and probably a few others). And yet, I still have pain! It helps them know they are not alone. Someone understands. And that someone is the very person now trying to help them. It really does help form a bond. I NEVER overdo it. I tell them once and let it be unless they ask for more info. It also builds trust. So, yes, I will share my story.