One Hand Washes the Other

Posted by: Bonney Elliott on August 19, 2015 1:30 pm


In nursing school in my early 20’s strict principles of infection control were drilled into our heads. From basic hand washing to elaborate sterile technique, the focus was on caring for people without spreading disease from the infectious patient to the wounded or immune compromised. These principles have served me when working up close and personal with the human body as a nurse, but nursing school did not prepare me for the emotional impact of caring.


In my first job as an RN at a children’s hospital, I loved the kids. Children are honest, fun, and incredibly resilient. Over time it became harder to separate my personal feelings from the clinical scenarios that unfold in an acute care setting. I often took on the suffering of my sick and dying young patients and their families. I brought it home with me. This was heartbreaking, and unsustainable once I became a young mother myself.


With support from family, I upgraded my skills and moved into community health in my early 30’s as a nurse practitioner. I developed more solid emotional boundaries, which I found easier to maintain outside of the hospital setting. Working with families from all walks of life still pulled at my heartstrings though. I am prone to holding onto the emotions of others, sliding from empathy into sympathy. It was early in this second phase of my career, that I received simple but sound advice from a visiting Elder from the Nova Scotia Mi’qmaq First Nation, a warm and wise medicine woman.

She gave me a practical grounding ritual, overlaying a tool for healing onto an existing and necessary practice. No matter how busy you are, you have to wash your hands, right? When you stop to do so, take a moment to breathe and centre. Feel the warm water. Smell the soap. Let the emotions you picked up from your previous client or experience wash down the drain with compassion and care. Your hands are important instruments for caring. Take a moment to care for them. Notice how one hand washes and dries the other. Maybe even massage a little moisturizer into your skin. Then set your mind to being open and fully present to the next person you meet.


Her words were a gift. Hand washing morphed from a tedious chore to a welcome pause, an anchoring ritual. I replaced the harsh antibacterial cleanser at my office sink with a bar of lavender soap. Of course, I often lapsed into washing my hands automatically and mindlessly. Eventually I would find my way back to being present to myself for those brief moments at the sink, simply because it made such a difference. I noticed that even a day that started off badly could get back on the rails if I came to each new appointment calm and fully present.


Since transitioning from health care to a career in counseling, hand washing is less of an imperative. Yoga and mindfulness have integrated simpler re-centering techniques into my work with clients, such as taking a deep breath, allowing a moment of silence, or even drinking a sip of water. That being said, and perhaps it is ever the nurse in me, mindful hand washing is ever in my mind a valuable clinical tool. Not only for infection control, but for self-care, and to be more fully present to others.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA