Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The art of nursing

Isabelle J. St. John
Milwaukee, WI


A sculpture that captures the art of nursing
Cornelia Parker’s art piece appears as an explosion suspended in time, which effectively conveys how a nurse operates as an artist of care; nurses enter their patients’ lives at the moment of explosion, and they have the ability to suspend that explosion for a moment in time and help their patients to focus on the feelings present amidst this chaos.

Nursing is not just a science but an art, and I am an artist of care. This has been my guiding philosophy throughout my education and career. As a child, I was guided in the practice of analyzing and interpreting art by mentors, who did not shy away from challenging questions that encouraged me to think more critically, look beyond the obvious, and dig for a deeper meaning. I took field trips to art museums with a small group of peers to broaden our perspectives, participate in discussions about deeper meanings in literature, and write about what we had learned from works of art.

As a teen, music and theater were as important to me as my science courses. Our directors worked with us relentlessly to identify what we wanted to make our audiences feel. Without a strong understanding of the emotions we wanted to communicate, our work lacked purpose and depth. As a nurse, I ask myself a similar question: what do I want my patients to feel when they experience my care?

When I perform or create, I communicate with the audience by helping them feel something. A sense of intimacy and connection is created with a group of strangers. An artist communicates with an audience through ambiance and emotion, and the core method of communication between nurses and patients aligns in a remarkably similar fashion. Nursing allows me to create a sacred connection with my patients. This link between my artistic passion and my profession gives me a sense of purpose.

Empathy is a central pillar in creating and showcasing high-quality art, and in providing high-quality nursing care. To communicate and create a connection with others, one must adopt another’s perspective. Brené Brown states, “Empathy is feeling with people. [It] is a choice, a vulnerable choice” (The RSA, 2013). If an artist wants her work to communicate an understanding of the audience’s feelings of pain and anxiety, she must make the choice to connect with the pain and anxiety within herself. A nurse must do the same to communicate an understanding of the many feelings patients experience during a healthcare journey.

A powerful encounter reinforced this philosophy. I cared for a patient who was in critical condition, under the heavy influence of strong medication and experiencing excruciating pain and anxiety. Days later, when I introduced myself again, I was certain that the patient would not remember me, but to my surprise the patient said, “I remember your voice. I remember you caring for me.” The patient was keeping a journal about the different sensations and emotions experienced during the hospitalization, trying to make sense of the swirl of dizzying events while under the influence of medicine and stress. “I want to remember everything I can about this process and how I got to where I am. I remember you and how you made me feel. I wasn’t aware of a lot, but I felt so calm when you were with me. I remember feeling like a small child, so overwhelmed by everything, and you must’ve realized that. You were confident and calm and I felt safe. You got me through the night, and I’ll always remember that.” My nursing care had been able to quiet the chaos and communicate feelings of safety, peace, and serenity.

Now more than ever, there is an art to the nursing care I provide. As a pediatric cardiac critical care nurse, most of my patients are infants recovering from life-saving surgeries to correct congenital heart defects. Communication through feeling has become even more crucial to providing quality care to these small patients, who cannot express themselves with words. I must craft a trusting connection between myself and my patients. Infants may not be able to provide a testimony like the patient discussed above, but caregivers can. A parent once told me, “You have a very calming effect on my baby. I feel safe when you are caring for my child, and I can tell my baby feels safe, too.” These comments fill me with warm gratitude for the opportunity to craft these connections with patients of all ages as an artist of care.

True art gathers you, cleanses you, and allows you to feel. Art has the ability to reach beyond our biases and agendas to exert its influence. It quiets the extraneous noise in our surroundings and enables us to focus on feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. Art holds our hands, looks us in the eye, and says, “Just feel with me. That’s why I’m here.” This is also what it means to be a nurse, an artist of care. To quiet the chaos, to sort through the mess, to hold your patients’ hands, to look beyond the surface and say, “Just be here, be present, listen to how you feel and to the feelings I am communicating to you. I will feel your pain and fear, and you will feel my strength and confidence. I will be present with you every step of the way.”




Image Credit

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991

installation view, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, 2015

blown up garden shed and contents, wire, light bulb Tate, presented by the Patrons of New Art (Special Purchase Fund) through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1995

Image courtesy the artist, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester and Frith Street Gallery, London

© David Levene, 2019

Photograph: David Levene



ISABELLE J. ST. JOHN, BSN, RN, graduated in June 2018 from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh College of Nursing. She completed the Nurse Residency Program at UW Health in Madison, WI on the solid organ transplant unit, and is now pursuing her passion for pediatrics at Children’s Wisconsin. She finds inspiration in reflective and creative writing.


Summer 2020  |   Sections  |  Nursing

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