As a child I was frequently told off for ‘staring’. I’d be nudged discreetly and sometimes firmly, mocked and told not to do it. I didn’t always recognise I was doing it, but sometimes I was lost in the staring – lost in the trying to figure someone out, trying to ‘see’ who a person was, trying to somehow store the details of who they were, their facial expressions and the stories they sometimes spoke through mannerisms, lines on faces, hairstyles, tattoos or scars. Or perhaps sometimes just the clothes they wore that I adored? Perhaps I wasn’t always discreet, but hey I was a child? I didn’t see the wrong in it. I figured if someone stared at me in the same way, perhaps they were admiring me or were intrigued by me, I would see that as a compliment?
I’d say I have a very ‘visual’ memory, there are faces, scenes, colours and light etched on my mind. I couldn’t tell you some of my friends addresses, but I could tell you what colour their front door is and describe their street. I can tell you what I have seen but not always what I heard or the factual information you may need. I can describe the details. I can remember the details, sometimes always and forever.
A few years ago, I was part of a TV advert and there were several army personnel involved in the filming, I remember re-walking along a street for several takes, alongside one of the army guys – I have no idea now what his name was, but I can clearly see his face and visually see his height and every shade in his camouflage outfit. I don’t remember what I said that prompted it, but he turned to me and said, ‘you’re very observative, you should be in the army! Observation skills like that are rare’ Now at this time I had just qualified as a nurse and was waiting for my pin at the time. I had no intention of being a part of the army, never have and never will. But for the first time I saw my ‘staring’ and the way I saw things, the details I stored, the thoughts I had behind what I had visualised as something positive, something that would serve me, and something that could actually be beneficial to others.
Now as a nurse, yes you need to know facts, and stats, and past medical history, and bloods and a patient’s baseline. You rely on data and information and the all-important figures. But ultimately sometimes those things mean nothing unless the patient is in front of you. What you see there in that moment, how that person presents and the details you see in their face, their skin, their hair, their eyes, their mouth. Sometimes you just have to go on that – what you ‘see’ and what you yield about that person and their current status from what you ‘see’ in the there and now.
As a hospital nurse, sometimes I find myself ‘staring’ at people from the end of the bed. This is not me being creepy, sometimes a patient is sleeping, or unarousable, or even dying, sometimes staring is all I have in that moment. I stare to see their chest rising, their eyes flickering under closed lids, the inside of their mouth when they are fast asleep with an open mouth. I see the colour of their skin, how pale their face is, if they have a rash or skin irritation. I see pulsing veins and perfusion or cyanosis. I can see if their lines are patent, if they are still or if they are agitated or restless, if their brow is furrowed or they are grimacing – could they been in pain or distress? This is what I can ‘see’ without any of the facts and figures. Sometimes we have to treat what we can ‘see’. Sometimes we need to stare.
‘Just cast your eyes over them’ is a phrase often used amongst nurses. The casting of that eye can sometimes open up a whole world, sometimes opportunities and sometimes something new that none of the history could ever tell you.
So something I got in trouble for as a child in a way saves me every day as an adult nurse. The ‘staring’ I wasn’t supposed to do, the details I learnt to see, the visual information I stored and the ‘rare observation skills’ the army man pointed out to me have now come to serve me.
Yes of course its ‘rude to stare’ – something I heard a lot, how could I not?! But to ‘observe’ is clarity, knowledge, allows for reflection and is key to how we store memories. How you ‘see’ someone, or something and how you perceive that visual information at any given moment can change the way you or someone else ‘sees’ the world forever.
Image by Amber Clay