A thousand years ago, when I was a nursing student at the American University of Beirut, I learned so much more than anatomy, physiology, health, diseases and nursing care.
I learned enduring life lessons that I've carried forward with me, that have helped shape who I am and how I want to be in my life.
One of these lessons came from Miss Sy, (pronounced "see") my medical-surgical nursing instructor.
Miss Sy was a beautiful, svelte woman from the Philippines, with soft features and long shiny hair that she always had up in a neat bun on her head. She was a serious woman who reserved her smiles and laughter for special occasions.
I was assigned a patient (I'll call her Mrs. K) who'd just had surgery for retinal detachment. I'd read all about her condition, what precautions to take after surgery, and the nursing care she'd need.
But my best friend was given a much more difficult patient, a man recovering from heart surgery. I felt jealous and immediately thought they didn't give me something hard because I'm not as good as my friend.
So, I approached Miss Sy in the hospital hallway and told her my patient wasn't challenging enough, could I please get a more difficult one?
I'm pretty sure I saw smoke coming out of her ears! If I remember correctly, our conversation went something like this:
Her: Not challenging enough? We'll see. Why do you really want a different patient?
Me: Because I know everything about retinal detachment, and I want to learn about something new. (I made up a reason I thought she'd like.)
Her: Knowing from books is nothing. It's about how you put that knowledge to practice. Knowing and doing are two different things.
You take care of her today and when your shift is over, write a paper on the challenges this patient faces and the role of the nurse in helping her deal with them.
Then she turned and walked away with the clicking of her heels echoing in the empty hallway.
That's how Miss Sy rolled. She didn't care if she was liked or not, all she cared about was teaching us to become the best nurses we could be.
I felt my eyes well up partly because I didn't get my wish and partly because I felt I was being punished by having to write this paper. My 19-year-old ego didn't take this well, but I collected myself and went to meet the woman I was assigned to care for.
Mrs. K turned out to be a very sweet yet challenging patient after all.
She was disoriented and scared, nauseated and struggling with a cough. She needed help with moving around as well as being quiet and patient while her eye healed.
I oriented her to her environment, helped her to eat and to take her medications.
I taught her how to minimize strain to avoid intraocular pressure and how to avoid post-op complications.
And after all the bases were covered, I even had a chance to find a small radio to save her from boredom. By the end of my shift, I knew about her life, her dreams and struggles, and the names of her grandchildren.
That day, Miss Sy and Mrs. K not only gave me an opportunity to put my knowledge into practice but also to realize how much more there was to Nursing than just the physical care.
My empathy muscle grew.
I got to listen deeply, understand the patient's perspective, and provide emotional support -- all of which allowed me to see my patient as a whole human being not just someone with a certain diagnosis.
I realized it was more important to me to give the best care I could give to the one I had the honor of serving than to want the momentary glory of shining as the smartest, the best, the one who got the toughest patient.
That kind of shine would fade away quickly, but the light I brought to Mrs. Kay would make a huge difference in her life.
Miss Sy knew this would happen of course as she smiled one of her rare big smiles and nodded her head reading the paper I had written after my shift.
And I've never forgotten that lesson.
How many times do we sit smugly in the satisfaction of knowing things, but do nothing about them.
It can be something simple like knowing someone could use your help but not reaching out.
It can be more complex, like knowing you don't like racism, but not taking action against it
It's easy to feel righteous sometimes -- "oh I know how unfair things are for minorities; it hurts my heart to see women wearing a headscarf scorned; I'm not one of those intolerant people..."
But what are you doing about all that?
Is it because you're waiting for a challenge better suited to your preferences?
Like I did when I was 19 years old.
Often it's fear and/or the kind of laziness that comes from believing there's no worth in our efforts.
That we don't have the power to change things or the things we can change are too insignificant.
A "why bother" attitude based in fear.
What's your fear?
All those years ago, mine was not looking as intelligent as my friend. I worried that others would dismiss me as inconsequential. The inexperienced teenager in me wanted the bigger fish as if the smaller one didn't matter.
Many people believe their efforts on a small scale won't make much of a difference.
After all, they're just one person, what can they accomplish? It's so much easier to blame the powers that be than try and make a difference in even the smallest way.
My client, Sandra, believed if only she got a promotion, she'd be in a better position to make a difference for the employees of her company. That might have been true, but was there nothing she could do right now?
After some inquiry, Sandra found several ways to help the employees under her own supervision, thus making a difference and bettering her chances for a promotion as well.
It might not have been the big recognition she wanted at the company level, but it was a start right where she was.
A friend likes to talk about how she would improve things for hard working people if she were governor or president. Another friend believes only celebrities have the kind of outreach to make a difference.
A higher position or celebrity status might have opportunity for more impact, but there's plenty to do in our own communities, schools, neighborhoods.
That's how change starts.
If each person shines a little light, gives a little love and compassion just in their corner of the world, what a difference we can make!
Knowing what needs to be done is not enough.
Doing nothing because your efforts won't bring big, shiny, recognizable results right away is not acceptable.
What small thing will you take action on today?
We might not be able to change the entire world, but you and I can do something about what's right in front of us, based on what we know to be true for us. And if we do that, we can make a big difference for someone as worthy as the whole world, like my Mrs. K.
One person at a time.
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
~ Theodore Roosevelt