Clinical placements

Listening to patients’ wartime stories helped me develop empathy

It can be hard to find time to listen to patients, but it’s essential for holisitic care

It can be hard to find time to listen to patients, but it’s essential for holisitic care


Picture: Alamy

The expression ‘lest we forget’ is commonly used in remembrance of the service personnel who lost their lives in war. 

The second world war claimed the lives of an estimated 60 million people between 1939-1945 and many of those alive then are well into their nineties today.

I always make the time to speak to patients from this era. Not only is it a privilege to hear about their lives, but in a few years’ time they will no longer be around to tell us their stories.  

Placement reflections

Last month, around the anniversary of the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944, I began reflecting on what this generation sacrificed. I was reminded of two older patients in particular who trusted me with their stories. 

I was on placement on a care of older people ward when I met a patient I will call Fred. At 101 years old, he is the oldest patient I had cared for. Fred had been in the Royal Air Force and served during the second world war. 

A bomber pilot’s sadness

When I asked him what his role was, he told me, with a tear rolling down his cheek, that he had been a Lancaster bomber pilot. I asked why he was upset, and he said he hoped God would forgive him for what he had done during the war. 

I comforted Fred and told him he was a good man and it was not his fault. I’m guessing he thought his life was coming to an end, and he was seeking peace and forgiveness for what he might have done in his past. 

I wondered what it must have been like for Fred to carry out the orders he was given and how he managed to live his life, marry, have children and hold down a long-term job while carrying the guilt he expressed that day.

Patient was proud of her husband's heroism 

On another day, I cared for a 95-year-old woman I will call Betty. She was a lovely lady who was fully independent until she had a fall at home. 

Betty spoke to me while I was completing the documentation for her admission. She told me she had lived alone since her husband died five years ago.  

She said her husband had fought in the war alongside the Gurkhas in Burma, where he was captured and made a prisoner of war. After managing to escape, he made his way back to Europe before being shot twice by a German sniper in Italy. 

‘Listening helps us understand our patients’ care needs and see them as people’

Betty went on to tell me her husband later lost a leg in an explosion, and returned home from the war to work as a shoe repairer, marry Betty, and raise a family. 

I could tell by the way Betty spoke of her husband that she was very proud of him. I was amazed to hear what he had been through, and how resilient and determined he must have been. 

Paying attention to the message

Good communication is a vital part of nursing and starts with the ability to listen. I never probe or ask too many questions when talking to older people about the war, I just let them tell their stories, stories that will only be available in books in years to come. 

Listening skills are an important part of interpersonal communication. Good listeners pay attention and listen actively, which enables them to understand the complete message being communicated.

Listening helps us understand our patients’ care needs, see them as people, and form closer relationships based on trust and respect. At a time when they are at their most vulnerable, putting their needs first helps us maintain their dignity. 

With the current demands on nurses, it can be hard to give patients the time they need to talk about their concerns. But if we don’t communicate effectively with our patients, how can we deliver holistic care? 

We need to make the time to talk to our patients. Communication allows us to be empathetic and it makes us human. Without it, we stop caring. 


Richard Porritt is a third-year adult nursing student at Plymouth University

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