21 March 2014

The power and promise of storytelling

Once upon a time, there was a college professor who loved stories. She loved listening to them; retelling them; creating, writing, and sharing them. As a young child, riveted by some of the world’s best storytellers (her family and friends), she quickly learned that a powerful, absorbing story can mobilize action, influence thinking, stir emotions, and sometimes move us to tears. And that every now and then, a gripping story can teach us lessons that change our lives. That college professor is me! I grew up witnessing and embracing the magical power of a compelling story.

Stories not only illuminate a topic, but tell us something about the storyteller, too. Telling a simple, powerful, relevant story breathes life and relevance into even the most uninteresting topics. Stories help make the forgettable and unexciting memorable and significant. The ancient art of storytelling grabs us and refuses to let go. The lessons learned and the morals taught provide fodder for reflection, self-discovery, and inspiration.

When we share our stories, we provide context for understanding and sorting out our experiences. Here’s a story that was recently passed along to me by a recently graduated nurse. [I’ll call her Holly, not her real name]. Holly was 23 years old when she had her first month of orientation on an oncology unit and was inexperienced in end-of-life care. Here’s her story.

During my nursing education, I had never experienced the death of a patient. As a brand-new nurse, that changed dramatically. It didn't take long for me to realize that death on an oncology unit is a common occurrence.

I struggled to deal with the range of emotions that quickly became part of my day-to-day working life. One extremely busy night, several very ill patients required complex procedures while they and their families also needed emotional and spiritual comfort and support. Learning my new role while simultaneously administering holistic care to clearly compromised patients, I felt torn in so many directions. I struggled to do my best, and, since every member of the health care team was stretched to the max, was determined to function as independently as possible.

One of my patients, Mr. Brown (not his real name), was in especially critical condition and had a DNR/DNI order. I had been checking him constantly throughout the night and, during a final round, found him surrounded by family and taking his last breath. After checking Mr. Brown’s heart rate and confirming he was deceased, I reported his passing to the physician, who then came and pronounced him dead.

Since Mr. Brown was my patient, it was my responsibility to provide postmortem care. After giving the family time at the bedside, I found myself alone in the room with the deceased and quickly realized I had no idea what to do. I had not been introduced to this type of care during my nursing program, nor had I received postmortem training during orientation. Despite the busyness of the night, I knew I needed help. I explained the situation to my charge nurse, who was immediately supportive and guided me gently through the process. Being a new nurse can be challenging, but knowing when to ask for help and having a collegial and responsive team make all the difference in the world.

Sharing our stories with others helps us deconstruct and interpret new experiences. Stories help us organize our thoughts, make sense of events, and assist us in making decisions and determining courses of action.

What do we learn from Holly’s story? First, reach out to others, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Ultimately, our patients’ safety and care depend on it. Second, the impact of a traumatic experience is eased when we share our thoughts and feelings with trusted and more experienced colleagues. Third, seasoned nurses have the capacity to model caring and supportive behaviors for less experienced colleagues. By serving as a positive role model and sharing knowledge, experience, and wisdom, experienced nurses guide the professional development of those with less experience. Positive role models are generous, competent, and focused on collegiality and collaboration. Nurses at all levels of experience need to encourage initiative and curiosity, foster desire to learn, and promote willingness to seek guidance.

Storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool for opening the nooks and crannies of our minds and makes room for fresh ideas and points of view to take up residence. Stories have the potential to ignite our senses and fill our grey matter with creative ideas and new ways of knowing. So, boldly share your stories and experiences with others, and use those stories as catalysts to create personal, professional, and transformational change. The results might just change the world.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments are moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.