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The power of artful hands in nursing

Thinkstock | iStock

Thinkstock | iStock

I made friends with a sculptor recently. When learning his occupation, I commented on the size and strength of his hands. In reply, he said, “My hands are my livelihood.”

This line got me thinking: Yes, an artist is lost without his hands. To be sure, many para- and quadriplegics create artwork, and the eyes seem equally important. But my friend would be lost without his fingers; his huge sculptures left unfinished without his grasp.

That’s not what I thought about, though. Mostly, I wondered if the same applied for me. Are my hands my livelihood? Without them, how could I turn my patients to look for skin breakdown, or delicately palpate their veins for blood? How would I feel their fever, or for their pulses, or simply squeeze their trembling hands?

Hands, yes, are vital for my work. They are always seeking, searching, moving. To nurse is most definitely to touch. Without a set of hands, the physical tasks of the job would prove impossible, the care limited.

But my friend’s comment, and his art, crafted down to each minute detail, made me think about the way I use my hands. Are my hands crafting the art of care, like my friend crafts his sculptures?

Perhaps each moment of touch is an opportunity for finely crafted art. Every finger meeting every patch of skin – whole or wounded, clean or dirty, old or young – should be as purposeful as the tiniest paintbrush tracing the most delicate outline. A nurse’s hands are tools for cure and for comfort – wands of experience, used to heal.

But this is so often so far from reality. So much purpose is lost in our hurried touching – we rush to clean, to assess, to chart, to pick up – missing the art of our care.

I have long believed that no nurse is ever too busy to let a patient know they are safe and listened to. Yes, unsafe staffing makes this more and more difficult, forcing out the art and safety of nursing with every short-staffed shift. But all patients, no matter the ratio, are physically touched by a nurse. Why not make each touch purposeful artistry?

My friend will laugh if he ever reads this. Nurses are way more important than I’ll ever be, he’d likely say. But I will think of him the next time I’m in a hurry and my patient asks for a bedpan or a cup of water. Instead of moving through the familiar motions with speed and drudgery, I’ll think of the sculpture my hands might be creating – I want mine to come out calculated and happy, with a story and a purpose.

Amanda Anderson, RN, BSN, CCRN, became a nurse in 2007. She currently nurses in New York City, while studying in a dual master’s degree program at Hunter Bellevue School of Nursing. Her blog is called This Nurse Wonders, and she tweets as @12hourRN. Amanda blogs for The American Journal of Nursing‘s Off the Charts and for the Center for Health Media & Policy, where she is a graduate fellow. In her spare time, she can be seen zipping around the city on her bike, meeting friends and looking for art.

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