Registed Nurses' Association of Ontario

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RNs learn about the other side of health care as cancer patients

In the March/April 2014 issue of Registered Nurse Journal, the Ryalls shared their touching story of living life to the fullest, despite having cancer. Here, the couple recounts the good and bad of nursing care from a patient’s perspective.

Francis Ryall loved to nurse “on the cutting edge.” He thrived when confronted with a challenge, and prided himself on having the most up-to-date skills and expertise. But when cancer flipped Francis’ world on its head, and he found himself a patient, he discovered what was truly important on the other side of health care.

“All that mattered was that (nurses) demonstrated caring,” he says. “It’s so vitally important…it’s much more important than completing the task.”

Concurrent cancer diagnoses thrust Francis and his wife Amanda into uncharted waters as parents of four young children, but also as health-care providers. The two Windsor-based RNs and former nursing instructors were suddenly seeing the system from a different perspective, and what they found surprised them.

“We have seen some phenomenal nursing, compassion and empathy, and then we have seen some not-so-good (nursing),” Amanda says, adding she found many nurses were task oriented, which left little time for compassionate care. The health-care system too often made them feel like numbers and bed spaces, rather than human beings, she adds. “I wanted to scream at them, ‘I’m Amanda, I’m a mom, I’m married (and) I’ve got four kids!”

Amanda recalls the moments before she went into surgery for her double mastectomy last year. A nurse came into the room and began asking questions without lifting her eyes from her checklist. Amanda recognized the nurse, and cut her off.

“I know you,” she said. The nurse looked up at Amanda and back down at her chart. Tears welled in her eyes, and she apologized. She set her checklist aside, and started calling Amanda by her first name. As Amanda was being put under anesthesia, the nurse was called out of the room. “Nope, I’m going to stay with Amanda until she falls asleep,” she replied. That show of humanity meant the world to Amanda. “I suddenly felt that I was going to be cared for,” she remembers
The Ryalls believe their negative patient experiences resulted from systemic issues. An overburdened health-care system has forced many nurses to put greater emphasis on numbers and checklists.

In fact, in recent years, Ontario has fallen far behind the rest of the country in the number of RNs working compared to its population. The province had just 6.99 RNs per 1,000 Ontarians in 2012, as compared to the national average of 8.30 RNs per 1,000 people. At this point, Ontario needs to hire more than 17,500 RNs just to catch up with the rest of the country.

“I can see how nurses are put in that (difficult) environment,” Amanda admits. “People are so on-guard. They just want to get the checklist done.”

Both Amanda and Francis are former nursing instructors at St. Clair College, and both say they’d love to share what they’ve learned as patients with future students. You can’t underestimate a good foundation of knowledge, but the best nurses develop a rapport with their patients through therapeutic communication, Amanda explains.

Francis says he would teach his students that the littlest things can have a huge impact. “Maybe something as simple as answering a call bell properly,” he says. “You’ve acknowledged the fact that they need you. It may seem trite, it may seem trivial, (but) it’s extraordinarily important.”