Beyond the overt medicalized interventions that drive healing, I see a role in nursing that now seems so obvious, but was completely elusive to me until recently. The far more abstract responsibility of “bearing witness” serves a number of purposes in this profession. My fresh eyes as a novice student nurse have already witnessed both ends of the spectrum, from a wasted young man’s body ravaged by AIDS to the most beautiful and awe-filled hour of my life: childbirth. Both hold their own meaning and purpose and both have a story to tell. Meanwhile, I have also struggled with my own friend’s disease process, faltering when trying to define my role in the difficult contours of her illness as well as in coming to terms with its unfairness.
In the realm of my friend’s illness, I have realized that right now I can’t be both her nurse and her friend. I live too far away to stay constantly updated on her care. I simply cannot travel to her hospital every weekend, because I have my own health and well-being to tend to as I wade my way through this strenuous program. It has taken a long time for me to fully appreciate, and believe, that I can only give what I have to give. Right now, I can be her friend. I hope that’s enough.
In difficult moments in nursing, I can do more than be a compassionate nurse. I can write about it, a catharsis for me and hopefully an advocate for someone. I can bear witness to the pain, suffering and disease. This is something I first started thinking about when listening to a presentation from Doctors Without Borders (MSF). I used to believe, incorrectly, that they were an organization that just ran into a country in crisis and provided brief, unsustainable interventions. Good first aid, but not long-enduring change. My opinion is beginning to change, especially after listening to an incredibly thought-provoking discussion on bearing witness. Do we provide humanitarian aid to the victims of human-devised tragedy like genocide without taking a political stance? Where do we stand? Who do we treat? I can’t answer these questions for MSF (nor would I even remotely want to try) but I like the concept of retelling the stories, bearing witness and trying to be ethical. I think that some of the “psychological first aid” that they provide in crises actually comes from the re-telling of the stories afterward, in words that reverberate across headlines, blogs and lectures like the one I attended.