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Learning Through Serving: A Nursing Student Gives Back and Gains Valuable Lessons in Patient Empathy

December 2013

Sometimes the greatest lessons learned can happen in the most unexpected places. Lindsey Lang, RN, BSN, a level one trauma center nurse at the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C., would have to agree.

“My biggest learning in nursing school was not taught in the classroom, during my clinicals or by studying for my certification exams,” said Lang. “I learned the meaning of nursing from an unexpected source – my patients.”

In fall 2012, during her final year of nursing school at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), Lang completed her public health rotation at the Durham Center for Senior Living (DCSL). She had the opportunity to work with senior citizens in her community, providing general wellness counseling, performing health screenings and assisting with activities for the seniors. One afternoon while speaking with a staff member of the DCSL, Lang discovered that the center offered a food pantry service that provided food to many of the seniors who visited the center.

“I learned that many seniors in the community had very little money to pay for food after spending their money on medication, bills and heat for their homes, which is why the DCSL provided the food pantry service for their patients,” explained Lang. “However, a staff member informed me that the holidays were an especially difficult time for the elderly, and the center’s pantry was running out of food.”

Lang was inspired to take action. She met with one of her professors, Megan Williams, MSN, RN, FNP, and the two worked with UNC-CH’s Association of Nursing Students (ANS) to sponsor a food drive. They sent out emails to the entire nursing school, which included faculty, staff, and students, and displayed posters around the school with boxes for donations.

“The project was a natural fit for ANS. The primary goal of ANS’s Community Outreach and Education branch has always been to connect students with volunteer opportunities, with the hope that these students will continue that tradition of service for the rest of their time in school and in their work as nurses,” said Williams. “For future nurses, participating in community service is necessary to further understand and appreciate the discipline of nursing.”

According to Lang, there was an incredible response from the school and community, and with generous contributions, they were able to donate more than 500 pounds of food and $450 for the center to use to buy food at a discounted price through a larger food bank in the state.

“The experience taught me that I can never fully understand what my patients are going through until I ask questions. I had no idea that so many of the seniors I was working with were struggling to get food,” said Lang. “I also learned how imperative it is to treat each patient with kindness. Sometimes all people need is a smile, a gentle touch or a kind word to turn their day around.”

Now that Lang is a practicing nurse, she credits the community service project as helping her realize what it means to be a nurse. The experience helped her understand the true spirit of nursing, and shaped the way she practices nursing at her current job.

“Nursing is so much more than I had originally thought when I started nursing school. Nurses are the ones who spend the most time with patients. Nurses are able to intervene on their patient’s behalf and advocate for their patients best interest,” said Lang. “I think ‘giving back’ comes naturally for nurses and nursing students. We go into this profession because we want to serve others. It only makes sense that if we see a need in our community, we find a way to meet that need.”

Editor’s Note: According to Lang, there is an ongoing need for non-perishable food items in the Durham community, and the Durham Center for Senior Life and many other organizations and non-profits in the area continue to supply food for those in need. Lang encourages local residents to give back to the community through the use of food drives to benefit those organizations and to help keep the spirit of giving alive. Additionally, many senior organizations, food pantries and shelters are especially in need of food this time of the year. Please consider locating facilities in your area and donating if you can.

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