What I learned from an "old school" nurse

May 10, 2002

Hiring a seasoned LPN was this young internist's smartest move. During National Nurses Week, May 6-12, it seems especially appropriate to tell his story.

 

What I learned from an "old school" nurse

Hiring a seasoned LPN was this young internist's smartest move. During National Nurses Week, May 6-12, it seems especially appropriate to tell his story.

By Steven D. Presley, MD
Internist/Enterprise, AL

"Hire a good nurse." That's what several of my colleagues told me three years ago as I finished my residency and prepared to join an internal medicine group. Although finding a good nurse made sense, I thought it interesting that it was mentioned more often than tasks I considered more important, such as ordering equipment, setting up the office, and discussing call schedules and time off. Over the next two years, however, I came to realize how solid that advice was.

My search for a nurse didn't go well. Despite placing newspaper ads and spreading the word at local nursing schools, I received only one resume. Since my start date with the group was drawing near, I had no choice but to interview the lone applicant.

Within moments of meeting Phyllis Benavidez, I was drawn to her warm personality. She had a relaxed, yet confident way about her. When I had finished the formal part of the interview, I asked her if she had any comments or questions. She said, "Dr. Presley, I'm just an 'old school' nurse who loves taking care of people. I'm not the fastest nurse around, but I love what I do and I would enjoy working with you." I offered her the job on the spot.

It quickly became evident that I'd made the right decision. Even before her first day on the job, Phyllis called me to see what supplies we'd need to order. (I had taken it for granted that supplies would just magically appear.) When my son was born, she sent my wife flowers and a note. These personal touches—and the fact that Phyllis had once worked for the group that I joined—convinced me that things would be fine.

Yet little did I imagine how much her experience would help me get through those difficult first months. Phyllis taught me how to send off Pap smears, how to fill out endless tomes of paperwork, and how to handle messages and interruptions efficiently and compassionately.

Despite the differences in our ages, Phyllis and I were a perfect match. She, too, was a neat freak, so my penchant to stay organized and have everything in its place didn't grate on her as it might have with another nurse. We each had a soft spot in our hearts for patients whose situations seemed hopeless. In fact, after office hours Phyllis would fill out paperwork for indigent patients, so that they might qualify for free medications. She never expected to be paid for those services.

We both enjoyed a good laugh—often at ourselves—and were able to cheer each other up on even the longest, most discouraging days. We valued fairness and equality and were willing to step on some toes to correct perceived injustices. For instance, Phyllis would often battle insurers to get us fair reimbursements and to get costly procedures approved for patients.

If I ever struck a bad attitude or my empathy seemed to fade, Phyllis gently put me in my place. She seemed to know just what to say, and would bruise my ego only slightly without arousing my pride.

Phyllis' greatest strength was the compassion she showed for every patient. She reminded me, in many ways, that no patient is more important than another. She gave hugs freely, listened like a mother, wept with those who were sad, and laughed with those who were happy. Patients came to expect her special touch. She gave encouraging poems, books, cards, and other meaningful remembrances to those in need; she prayed with patients to whom prayer was important. One day, I even had a patient jokingly say, "If you ever lose Phyllis, I'll have to find a new doctor!"

After two years together, Phyllis and I were truly a team. I couldn't imagine working without her. She knew what I needed before I asked, and she could read my moods well enough to know when to back off or when to approach me.

Then came the unthinkable. Phyllis told me that her husband was considering a job transfer to another state. I reacted by going into denial and refusing to believe it would happen.

A few weeks later, Phyllis broke the news: She and her husband would indeed be relocating. In two weeks, she'd be leaving my practice. I began the silent process of coping, vacillating between suppression, repression, and depression.

Words can't do justice to what I witnessed over the next two weeks. As news of Phyllis' departure spread, patients showered her with expressions of love and admiration. During her last week of work, the office was filled with flowers, home-baked goodies, gifts, and cards from those whose lives Phyllis had touched.

My wife and I gave Phyllis a surprise reception on her last day. Hundreds of people came by the office to wish her well—physicians, patients, nurses, hospital staff, pharmaceutical company reps, family, and friends. My mind replayed two years' worth of memories, as I fought back tears every time I made eye contact with her. It did my heart good to see her kindness being returned. I was keenly aware of how blessed I'd been to be the recipient of her care, loyalty, and true understanding of what the medical profession is all about. What a bittersweet day it was.

Hiring an "old school" nurse proved to be the best decision I could have made. As I hugged Phyllis that day to say goodbye, I could muster only, "Thanks for all you've done for me, Phyllis. You taught me well."

 

Steven Presley. What I learned from an "old school" nurse. Medical Economics 2002;9:119.

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