Ask the Healthy RN (Jan-Feb 2017)

by Joey Traywick, RN

The sights, sounds, and smells of a hospital room must be “challenging” for staff to cope with. How do nurses manage the difficult – and often shocking – “sensory inputs” that accompany the job? Really, how do you do it?
John J.

Well, that is a GREAT “spirit of the holidays” kind of question, John! (wow) But, I really am glad you asked, actually. I know many family members and patients that are frequent utilizers of healthcare and our hospitals in particular. They all say that hospitals and clinics have a distinct smell. Whether that smell is pleasant or not is really in the nose of the smeller but the point remains, hospitals and clinics really DO seem to have a smell that is unique.

You may have heard that there are some ongoing studies regarding aromatherapy in hospital and clinic settings. In fact, I filled out a survey regarding the use of essential oils on the floors just this week. A group of concerned nurses at Billings Clinic took it upon themselves to advocate for creating pleasant smells in the hospital that can help put patients at ease. With the collaboration of leaders, these nurses have begun a trial of placing these oils in various locations to sort of counteract the rather odiferous and distinct smells that can come from our patient rooms and clinic spaces.

The jury is still out as to whether the essential oils are helping patients relax or helping to neutralize any offensive odors but one thing is certain, we would all do better in a place that smells good! Oftentimes, patients get nauseated due to medications or illness. We have noticed that a little product with peppermint, ginger, lavender and spearmint oil can help reduce most patient’s nausea within minutes. We use it all the time on the oncology unit.

thank-a-nurseHowever, there are those moments when even hardened and seasoned nurses like me are caught off guard by odors emitting from a room. It is in those moments that you immediately stop breathing from your nose and become a committed mouth breather! We also keep a stash of vapor rub on hand for those that may need to occasionally dab a bit under the old schnoz. Because I love you, I am NOT going to go into detail about the causes of some of the worst smells of my career in this article.

Suffice it to say we have three main rules: number one, never enter a room inhaling through your nose. Better to hold your breath while entering EVERY room than regret it forever in one. Number two, never show your shock on your face. Turn around, walk out or make up a reason to put on a mask but never let the patient or the family see you gag. It’s an empathy thing and you don’t want to embarrass them or make them concerned for your wellbeing. Number three, use deodorizers sparingly! There is nothing worse than the mixture of some sterile cleaning spray mixed with human odors to REALLY put you over the edge. Besides, those sprays are made to LINGER! You effectively guarantee that horrible smell will last longer. So much for smells and their rules and treatments!

Regarding sights and sounds, I can only tell you that most of the sights and many of the sounds elicit an empathetic response in most nurses. Myself included. I have dressed many wounds that AT FIRST may seem shocking but after a moment you realize this person is in pain and that this is how they are living right now and that YOU are the one that can help. Moaning, crying and even screaming get our attention because we believe we can help assuage that. It only bothers us because sometimes we can’t. Of course, most nurses are going to say, “ah, you just get used to it.” but what they are really saying, I believe is, “you realize you have a job to do and who else on this earth is going to do it?” This holiday season it becomes strikingly apparent that many of our patients really don’t smell good when they come in and that some of the trauma patients many not be able to stop crying or moaning in pain but that cacophony of sights and smells and sounds really isn’t something we nurses try to avoid. Because we believe we can make it better, it really kind of becomes another opportunity to serve – music to our noses!

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