She stands as a giant in her field at only 5′ tall. With a ready smile, gentle hands, and soft voice, she is the epitome of nursing at its best. Cindy McConnell came into my life as a Health Occupations teacher when I was a junior in high school and through the ensuing years has become my dear friend. She has been a nurse for over 20 years, and in 1993 she took an opportunity to pour into the lives of teenagers in a high school in northeast Alabama.
The Health Occupations program was in its infancy when she began; there was a basic framework in place, but she had dreams and plans for what could be. This class was supposed to be about basic information–information related to different health careers, nutrition, CPR, and medical terminology. What Mrs. McConnell did, was turn this class into a journey for all students interested in any health career. She took time to invest both her time and care in our lives and then used her resources to meet some very real intellectual needs we had as young adults. This was no “basket weaving” class (as many folks originally thought it would be). She challenged our minds in ways we couldn’t have imagined with written tests, essays, skills labs, and clinical rotations at a local hospital. She also cared and it showed. She cared that we would succeed in our careers, in life, and as human beings.
During a clinical rotation, Mrs. McConnell taught me about being a nurse, as well as a compassionate human being. While in clinicals, three of us would be assigned to a floor at a time, and that meant we were responsible for many of the menial tasks such as refilling ice buckets, getting pillows and blankets, or just delivering flowers if that was the current need. We were essentially volunteers who also were allowed to watch procedures if a patient allowed it. And at times this was quite frustrating because I felt like I wasn’t doing anything useful. I was 16 years old and had my own problems in which I was immersed. So compassion and empathy were not my strong suites. I was nice, kind, and polite of course–I had been raised in the south! But empathy was beyond me at that time.
There was a patient who was a 60 year old female and who was less than charming. She was quite demanding and nothing anyone did was good enough. The nurses were frustrated and they usually sent one of us into the room to find out “what she needed now”. We usually did Rock, Paper, Scissors and the loser had to go in. But Mrs. McConnell found out and instead of lecturing us or berating us for our insensitivity or lack of effort, she just led by example. When Ms. “Less than Charming” made a complaint against me (I needed an attitude adjustment was the complaint I believe–likely was true but I did NOT agree at the time), Mrs. McConnell came in as my supervisor to address the issue. I was surprised when she began by sitting down and looking this patient in the eye. There was a change that I noticed almost immediately in Ms. “Less than Charming”. Suddenly, the fight in her eyes dimmed a bit. I watched for the next 40 minutes as I got the greatest lesson in my life about compassion and empathy.
By taking time to give this patient the courtesy of respect, time, and compassion, an amazing transformation took place. Mrs. McConnell spent time finding out what problems this lady perceived and addressed them each with solutions, but what was most amazing was that just by being able to voice her frustrations, without fail, the patient ended each item with, “Well, it probably really isn’t that big of a deal” or something to that effect. By probing a bit, Mrs. McConnell found out this lady had been given a very difficult diagnosis on the day of admission that would essentially mean she would have severe, chronic pain for the rest of her shortened life. Ms. “Less than Charming” had recently lost her husband to a car accident and had no other family. She really needed compassion and a friend–not the water, pillows, or thousands of other items she requested.
How have I used this in my life? I was a charge nurse in a busy urban Pediatric ED for 8 years. I listened to hundreds of disgruntled parents and families in that time. When frustration at being yelled or cursed at became overwhelming, I remembered Mrs. McConnell and Ms. “Less than Charming” and I took a deep breath and really listened to what folks were saying. I tried to hear what they weren’t saying too.