Lisa M. Zajac, DNP, RN, ANP, BC, OCN®
Lisa M. Zajac, DNP, RN, ANP, BC, OCN®

In nursing school and during my first clinical rotations, I was always uncomfortable with performing bed baths. To shut out my discomfort, I would focus on the task at hand, doing my best to ensure the patient’s privacy, keeping the water warm, and only exposing the one body area I was washing at the moment.

I think back to my first semester in nursing school where we learned the basic techniques and had to successfully demonstrate our competency prior to entering our first clinical rotations. My peers and I would practice assessments and the process of bed baths, striving to get them down before our competency test. We were taught everything from how to correctly fold a washcloth—which seemed like such a difficult task to master back then and never seemed to work exactly right in the clinical setting—to the proper order in which we would wash each area of the body. But early on, I was uncomfortable giving bed baths and would focus only on the outcome and completing the task. But then a patient changed all that.

An Offering to Help

During the third semester of my medical-surgical practicum, I cared for a middle-aged patient who was three days postoperative from gastrointestinal surgery. From the number of well-wishes in her room, I knew she had friends, family, and a great support system. Although I can’t remember aspects of her physical assessment or health history, I do remember her trusting me enough to share that she was having visitors over the weekend and was bothered that she couldn’t shave her legs because of her inability to bend at the waist while she recovered from surgery.

I asked if she wanted me to shave her legs for her, and she gratefully agreed. I explained that I needed to check with my clinical instructor and evaluate her laboratory results to see if it was possible. Once everything was approved, and I told her I would bring a woman’s razor and shaving cream with me to work the next day to shave her legs.

The following day, as planned, I began to shave her legs after her bed bath. We shared a laugh as I tried to identify the best way to perform the task. I had never shaved anyone else’s legs before and she’d never had anyone else shave her legs either, so it was a new challenge for us both. Standing with my back to her, I went about the task as if it were my own legs, and we talked throughout the process.

I don’t recall the particulars of our conversation, but I’ll never forget the smile on her face when I was done. She felt whole and happy again. It was only a brief moment in the course of her hospitalization, but it was an important one for her. And I began to realize how simple tasks can have a significant impact on a patient’s well-being.

Seeing the Value in Small Kindnesses

Through all those practice sessions in nursing school and the early bed baths in my rotation, the importance of the simple tasks I was doing hadn’t truly connected with me. After helping my patient perform something I take for granted, like shaving her legs, it dawned on me how important my role was to my patients’ well-being and quality of life. Performing basic hygiene efforts are crucial to keeping our patients healthy and, in this case, happy.

From that moment on, I spent more time connecting with patients when assisting them through their hygiene and personal care. I didn’t worry about the process as much. I paid attention to details, knowing I could make a difference to patients during an intimate moment with them. Coming to this realization improved my delivery of care, but more importantly, it enhanced the outcome and satisfaction of my patients’ hospital experience.