We all have choices. I made the decision to undergo a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy in January 2013, as my grandmother, my mother, and my sister all had breast cancer. The decision was anxiety provoking, but I knew in my heart that I made the right choice and felt grateful that I had a chance to make the choice. My mother did not get a chance to make this choice at 51 years old, and my sister clearly did not have this chance at 40 years old.

Nurses face countless choices every day. I chose to arrive at the hospital on July 18, not as a nurse reporting to work but as a patient. On that day, a group of nurses from the pre-op suite to the medical/surgical unit also made choices. They chose to give the patient—me—their best nursing care, yet my experience as a patient taught me invaluable lessons that changed the choices I make as a nurse.

Identify yourself Nurses may not think much about the identification badge they wear as part of their professional uniform. That badge, however, is priceless to a patient. I never realized the impact that square piece of plastic has on patients. I found myself immediately looking for the ID badge to see who was walking into the room. That simple piece of our uniform is a lifeline for patients. Although my badge is always visible, I now show it to my patients and tell them who I am.

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From a nursing perspective, I was a routine mastectomy patient whose care entailed good hand washing, patient education, emotional support, and hopefully, an early discharge. As a patient, however, I was terrified of contracting a hospital-acquired infection and becoming a statistic. I had two drains dangling out of my chest cavity, thinking this is a huge violation to my body and feeling an enormous loss of control. That being said, I was becoming the dreaded patient. Before I would let anyone touch me I asked, “Did you wash your hands?” I preferred that they used soap and water, not the hand gel; but I was in too much pain to make the recommendation.

Value of communication Fortunately, the nurse who received my report was a colleague and understood my fear of infection. She used all the appropriate communication techniques to alleviate my fears. As fate would have it, my IV infiltrated during transport from recovery to the surgical unit. My nurse, who was also considered the expert on the unit, calmly restarted my IV. She was reassuring and used impeccable technique, as well as utilized all the safety precautions. Providing care is second nature to nurses; however, this experience made me astutely aware of how patients watch our every move.

I always practice excellent hand washing, but after my experience as a patient deeply fearful of infection, I learned to verbally confirm my actions. Now, I tell my patients, “I need to wash my hands,” or “Please give me a minute to wash my hands before I touch you.” This also builds immediate trust between the nurse and the patient. Since incorporating this verbal cue, most patients respond with, “Take your time.” Our responsibility as nurses is to make sure the smallest of tasks are executed to the highest standard, and hand washing is one of them.