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  1. Makuchal, Penny J. RN, NCSN, PhD

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One of my most unforgettable patients was the first patient I was assigned to as a nursing student. She was memorable because I knew her as my teacher before she became my patient.


When I was a senior in high school, I enrolled in advanced placement English with Miss Smith, a very tall, stern-looking woman with oversized, round glasses perched on her nose. She was reserved and rarely smiled. I can picture her now, seated at her desk reading a book, listening to classical music, and finishing her morning cup of coffee as students entered the classroom. Once all of the students were seated, her class began promptly at the sound of the bell. The classroom atmosphere was all business and no foolishness.


Making the grade

I'll never forget when Miss Smith returned our first written assignment. I was devastated!! The grade at the top was an F. There must be some mistake, I thought. I'd never received an F on anything!! When I approached Miss Smith, she informed me that I didn't know how to write. Then she started helping me to learn. Extremely professional, she encouraged me, answered my questions, and helped me develop my ideas. Thanks to her, I passed my advanced placement exam and learned valuable writing skills.


The first class I took in college that required a research paper was sociology. While writing the paper, I tried to apply everything that Miss Smith had taught me and eagerly anticipated getting my graded paper back. But when the professor told me to pick it up in his office so he could discuss it with me, I was terrified that I'd unwittingly plagiarized something.


When we met, he asked me to tell him about the English classes I'd taken in high school. As embarrassing as it was, I told the truth: how I'd struggled with advanced placement English. He smiled at me and said, "You're not in trouble. I just wanted to know who taught you how to write. This is the best freshman paper I've ever read."


I was so excited that I went back to my high school to share this story with Miss Smith. That's when I learned she'd been diagnosed with cancer and retired. No one knew how to reach her.


My first patient

The next year, I began nursing classes with a clinical component at the hospital once a week. What a surprise to walk into the room of the very first patient I was assigned and see my high school English teacher lying in bed. As I entered her room, she smiled and said, "I remember you. I gave you your first F." I told her about my sociology paper.


As a patient, Miss Smith seemed like a completely different person. The quiet and reserved teacher was now very talkative. Although cancer had weakened her body, her brain was as active as ever. She asked many questions about cancer and the dying process, which I tried to answer.


Remembering her classroom, I tuned the radio to a classical music station. Although nausea from the chemotherapy had diminished her appetite, Miss Smith still enjoyed a cup of coffee, which I refilled for her throughout the day.


Miss Smith was my priority for that shift. She was exhausted from the radiation and frustrated with the pain. I bathed her, fed her, comforted her, and provided her with my very best nursing care.


As the end of my shift approached, I went back into her room one last time. She asked me for a piece of paper and a pencil, which I gave her. I thanked her for all she'd taught me, and we said our good-byes.


A note of encouragement

When I entered the nurses' station during the second week of clinical, the charge nurse told me Miss Smith had died. She handed me a note, which read: It was my pleasure being your teacher. I'm glad I helped you learn how to write well. It was also my pleasure being your patient. Your presence was a great comfort. You've earned an A and are going to be a wonderful nurse. Best of luck to you.


I'll never forget Miss Smith or the way we took turns helping each other. In high school, she was the professional helping me. In college, the tables were turned and I was the professional who helped her. Nursing is based on helping each other in wellness and in illness. Because we never know what our future holds, we must take turns helping each other whenever we can.