I’ll Show You My Stethoscope, But I Can’t Show You My Heart

In response to The View‘s now infamous comments about Miss Colorado and her monologue on nursing as her talent in the Miss America competition, an entire profession of registered nurses was angered en masse. And with good reason. Joy Behar asked why Miss Colorado was wearing a “doctor’s stethoscope” and that was the key phrase that generated a platform for righteously indignant nurses. Of course not only doctors use stethoscopes, and nurses aren’t the only ones who use them, either. Paramedics, Physicians Assistants, Emergency Medical Technicians, Veterinarians, and Nursing Assistants use them — and the list could go on.

As a backlash of The View‘s somewhat trite and sadly misinformed statements, a whole Facebook group was created in order for nurses to show themselves wearing stethoscopes. Some were funny, some were proud, some weary. Such is the profession of nursing — and the real reason why nurses are angry at the comments and the semi-apology offered, likely at the prodding of ABC, by the women of The View.

You see, I am a Registered Nurse. I have a stethoscope — several, in fact, and several that have gone to Stethoscope heaven. Some were swiped by physicians, never to be seen again. I like my stethoscopes just fine — it’s a tool that I use to gain a clearer picture of what is happening with a patient. I can listen to their heart, lungs, bowels, and I can compare to what I heard earlier in the shift. The stethoscope certainly is a useful tool, and it’s certainly not something that only doctors use. However, the stethoscope comment isn’t what caused the anger and the backlash — it was the proverbial nail in the coffin for a profession who has long been hard-worked and often under-acknowledged.

I can tell you how to assess a patient with a stethoscope. I can teach you to do it if you really want to know how. It’s the other things that I assess that I can’t tell you, or explain, or teach you. If you were to ever become a nurse, that art would be yours alone.

I can tell you about the four-pound baby I performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on because I couldn’t find a bag-valve mask small enough to fit his face. I could tell you about the months of medical testing I had to undergo afterwards because his HIV status was not known. I can tell about that dark gray day when I learned my efforts were not enough, and that he had died.

I can tell you about working on Thanksgiving, about what it’s like when everyone brings in a dish because we can’t be home with our families. I can tell you what a 19-year-old girl looks like who collapses at the Thanksgiving dinner table and comes to us by ambulance in cardiac arrest. I can tell you how confused I was as I started to cut off her clothes and had to keep cutting, and cutting. There were five layers — she had died of anorexia nervosa. Her family waited in the waiting room with her baby, having no idea that she had suffered from this because she had hid it so well. I can tell you what it felt like to push that door open as I accompanied the physician to tell her family she wasn’t coming home — that she had starved herself to death. I can tell you I pushed away my dinner plate that evening when I finally got home, bursting into tears in front of my confused, joyous, Thanksgiving-celebrating family.

I can tell you how it feels to have a patient grab your hand hard and say “thank you.” I can tell you how it feels to have a doctor look you in the eye and say “thanks for catching that.” I can tell you how to summon 10 people instantaneously when you and the patient you’re walking to the bathroom end up on the floor. I can tell you how good it feels to see that CT scan report pop up that your patient’s abdominal mass was benign — not cancer! I can tell you about the look on their face when their doctor shares that.

I can tell you about the mind-numbingly long hours. Twelve hour shifts that morph into fifteen hours, documentation after documentation, then while driving home, you suddenly remember that you never got your sixth admitted patient the coke she wanted. So you call back to the floor to ask them to please do it; you don’t want her to think that nurses don’t care.

And that, my friends, is the crux of the issue. Of course the stethoscope comment was stupid. It wasn’t, however, the real issue. The real issue is that like many other people and many other professions, nurses fight a battle that you don’t fight unless you’re one of us. We can tell you about it; we can tell you very sincerely, as Miss Colorado did. We can tell you why we feel angry or sad or marginalized or proud or united.

The truth is, we can tell you a lot. But telling is not the same as knowing, as experiencing, as feeling.

We can show you our stethoscopes, but we can’t show you what lives in our hearts.

[Image by Getty]