On the fifth floor of the clinic at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, nurses scurry from room to room, tending, soothing, answering questions. It’s an unlikely oasis for contemplation, but that’s what Michelle Todd is offering on the first day of National Nurses Week.
“Open your hands like you’re receiving a gift,” Todd, a spiritual health clinician, tells nurse Melody Kim. Todd dabs a drop of oil on Kim's palms in preparation for performing the Blessing of the Hands. “Look at all these creases. Look at all the work your hands are doing. May the sacredness of your work bring healing, restoration and wholeness. May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities and promises. May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.”
At SCCA, spiritual health clinicians, or chaplains, are more commonly associated with their support of patients. Board-certified chaplains are available at no charge to help patients work through the pain, fear and uncertainty that can accompany cancer diagnosis and treatment. Chaplains can serve as empathic listeners, sounding boards or conversational partners. They can help bolster patients when treatment is tough or celebrate with them when they receive good news. Chaplains also facilitate religious rituals including prayer, communion and blessings.
Sometimes those blessings aren’t for those being cared for; instead, they are directed toward those who provide the care.
It’s not clear where or when the Blessing of the Hands originated, but many suspect it’s been around at least since the time of Florence Nightingale. The brief ceremony -- offered annually at SCCA during National Nurses Week, observed each year from May 6 to 12 ‑‑ helps nurses reconnect with why they chose nursing as a profession.
SCCA is not alone in offering blessings to nurses during National Nurses Week. Many institutions observe this tradition, their numbers adding to the power of the ritual.
This was Kim’s second time receiving the blessing; the first was at her nursing school graduation. “I feel like it’s important to hear that the work we’re doing is making a difference,” says Kim, an infusion nurse who came straight to SCCA after graduating.
A demanding profession
When you’re in the trenches of healthcare day after day, exhausted after caring for oncology patients, it can be hard to remember your purpose, why you chose to go into nursing in the first place.
There’s no question that nursing is a demanding profession. Across the country, there aren’t enough nurses to meet demand. Burnout is common.
A nurse’s day can be filled with challenges, from helping calm the anxiety a patient receiving her first dose of chemotherapy may feel to helping counsel a patient receiving chemotherapy that is not proving effective. In the latter situation, says Todd, “there is nothing to be said but you know that you are helping the person achieve what they want.”
In Todd’s experience, oncology nurses have very intentionally chosen to specialize in cancer care. “They want to be here with oncology patients. It’s hard but they like being here at a time when a lot of other people disappear. They are here to be present.”
Other nurses feel a responsibility to usher someone toward a good death.
The work can take an emotional toll, which is why setting aside a few moments to stop and reflect on the value of nursing as a profession is important, says Todd.
"The hand blessing gives validation that the work you do is really amazing,” says Todd, who is part of the six-member Spiritual Health team. “It's a thank you and a prayer that this work may renew you and refresh you.”
It’s likely that the blessing has its roots in the history of healthcare facilities that were founded by faith groups. It’s not uncommon to hear nurses speak of their career choice as a “calling,” similar language to that used by religious leaders. “They may not work in a church, but they get to serve all these people who come into their care,” says Todd. "Receiving the blessing is an opportunity to stop and ponder what gives meaning to work.
A blessing appropriate for all, regardless of belief
Todd, who was raised until the age of 8 in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, originally had intended to become a military chaplain, but she later decided she didn’t relish the thought of moving from base to base.
Growing up, she’d always believed in a higher power, but attending a Christian retreat in college crystallized her spirituality.
But, she emphasizes, the blessing is not religious per se. At SCCA, the blessing is interfaith and inclusive by design. Sometimes chaplains offer a group blessing to nurses from a particular department; the colleagues may hold hands to deepen their sense of connection or bless one another’s hands while a chaplain reads the blessing. In past years, all chaplains said the same blessing. This year, they are crafting their own blessings in accordance with what feels authentic to them.
Todd varies the wording, but her blessing is some variation that incorporates a hope that the work of caring for cancer patients will be fulfilling and rejuvenating, not draining: "May the work of your hands be blessed, may the work of your hands strengthen you and refresh you and provide you joy.”
Todd invites nurses to look at their hands. “Think about all the work every day that your hands do,” she tells them, "and recall what brought you to this sacred work. Why are you doing this work rather than other work?”
Todd favors anointing nurses’ palms or wrists with a drop of oil or water to help consecrate the moment as special. "We are declaring that your hands are sacred instruments that do holy work,” says Todd, who begins by asking nurses to open up their hands as if they were getting a present. "We want to fill your hands with love and gratitude,” Todd tells them.
It’s not unusual for nurses to get a little weepy during the blessing. “It’s an acknowledgement of their work and their value,” says Todd.
Heidi Otterbein, an apheresis nurse, has worked at SCCA for one month. She was skeptical about receiving the blessing, but a coworker encouraged her to give it a try.
Todd dabbed a drop of oil on Otterbein’s wrist, explaining that long, long ago, scented oils were used to designate something as special or sacred. Todd’s anointing oil is unscented, to preserve the fragrance-free environment at SCCA.
“All day, you work with your hands,” Todd tells Otterbein, looking into her eyes. “May you be present in all that you do.”
The entire ritual takes less than five minutes. Afterward, Otterbein reflected on the experience. “When she said that I work with my hands all day, I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ I don’t typically think of myself that way.
“I think I will take my hands less for granted now,” she says. “They deserve to be blessed once in a while.”
Chaplains will be offering the Blessing of the Hands throughout Nurses Week throughout the clinic. Nurses aren’t the only ones offered blessings. All staff, including clinicians, administrative professionals, janitors and lab techs, can opt in. Call 206-606-6265 to make an appointment.