Clarissa P. Green
1996 3M Teaching Fellow

ancy stared unflinchingly into my eyes. She knew I was nervous. I felt her hand touch my sleeve, nudging me toward a chair draped in a clean white sheet. “Sit here,” she said. My eyes studied her face and hands and I realized it was impossible to figure out how old this woman was. Folded in wrinkles, a bone-white braid hanging to her waist, the backs of her hands ropey with veins, Nancy seemed timeless to me, as if the number of her years was beyond counting. Her clear gaze met mine. “This will be an important afternoon in your life,” she said to me. “We will talk about your past, present and future in ways you never have before.”

Theresa, my student, waved a book at me, smiled and said, “See you later, Clarissa.” Then she disappeared out Nancy’s front door and I was alone with a stranger, standing on the raw edge of my trust.

Theresa had told me en route to Nancy’s, a journey that took three hours, that she would wait for me while I spent time with her friend. She said she had a book and a pillow and would be fine under Nancy’s willow tree. I saw the massive willow tree when we drove up. It dwarfed Nancy’s small hut of corrugated metal. Located close to a tangle of railroad tracks and guarded by a large yellow Lab, Nancy’s property looked more like a movie set than an actual home.

All Theresa had said to me when she offered this meeting as a special thank you for my teaching was that she wanted to introduce me to the most important person in her life. She said Nancy had special powers, knew things other people didn’t know, could see into other worlds. “You are the first teacher or supervisor who has believed in me. I’m used to being told my ideas are crazy. Because your course was the best experience I’ve ever had, I must do something that matches my appreciation. And that’s introducing you to Nancy.” She had gone on to say she wouldn’t say more about Nan because she didn’t want to ruin my experience.

On the way, Theresa and I talked about her life with her husband and teenaged children in the small town where she lived, her plans for the future when she finished her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and what it was like for her to attend university after being out of school for so many years. When Theresa turned off the highway onto a dirt road, I asked, “What have you told Nancy about me?”

She laughed. “I don’t know much about you, Clarissa. She knows that I am bringing my teacher to her, that’s all. All I really know about your personal life is that you have two sons.” This was by far the oddest thank-you gift I had ever received.

During the winter, Theresa had taken a course from me on conceptual frameworks used in nursing practice. The primary assignment for students was to articulate in writing their beliefs about their practice, test these in a clinical setting, and write a paper that critiqued this experience, including literature written by others that supported these beliefs. All twenty-five students were experienced practitioners who were back at school earning their baccalaureate degree.

She had told me when she turned in her paper about her beliefs that it would be fine ifi didn’t let her practise what she believed. “I’m used to it,” she said, “so just tell me what I’m supposed to believe and I’ll do that instead.” I was intrigued. Theresa’s paper revealed that she believed healing happened through touch, the full presence and intense listening of the nurse, and through encouraging the patient’s description of the experience of being ill. I could see why her practice made people nervous and knew I would have difficulty finding a clinical placement for this student. In a world increasingly pressured to use health care resources efficiently and focused on obvious quick results, Theresa’s practice, in addition to being seen as weird, would be considered a poor investment. I knew, however, that there were others who shared her beliefs. There was nothing in her paper that seemed dangerous or unethical to me, so I approved it.

It took many calls to find a clinical facility willing to offer her a place to practise what she believed. The only facility that welcomed her, albeit cautiously, was a care home for very old seniors, most of whom were seriously compromised and without visitors. “Oh, thanks!” she said when I told her. “I’m impressed you found anyone who would take me on. But, see what I mean?”

Over the next few months, Theresa worked with several very old people, putting her beliefs into action and documenting what happened. I met with her weekly to talk about her experiences, to encourage her and steer her toward literature that would help her with her second paper. She needed to read about others who shared similar beliefs. While Theresa’s hand floated above wrinkled backs and hands, her soft voice gently coaxing, her ears turned intently toward tired creaky voices, the care home staff paid an uncomfortable amount of attention. One morning three weeks after she began, Theresa accompanied a shuffling ninety-three-year-old woman into the day room, a woman who had not walked since her entry into the facility. “She did this with magic hands!” said the woman, her face bright with pride. “And she didn’t poke or prod! Look at me, I’m walking again!” The staff stared, incredulous. Not long after, another of Theresa’s patients, a ninety-six-year-old man who was considered deaf and silent, began to converse with other residents. “How did you do that by just sitting there?” asked other nurses.

Theresa’s final paper revealed the thoughts of a reflective, mature woman who had put long-held beliefs into action, and a beginning scholar who had read about others who also used therapeutic touch, presence and witnessing to foster healing and health. As I read the last page, I saw a card clipped to her folder. It read: “I entered this course wondering ifi was crazy for my beliefs about the essence of care. That’s what I’ve been told for years. I leave validated, curious and eager to study more. This has been the best learning experience of my life and I need to thank you. As thanks, please let me take you to meet someone deeply special, my friend and my guide.”