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Give patients their dignity

To nurses, here or in Afghanistan.

The speaker at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing graduation this month was Greg Mortenson, coauthor of "Three Cups of Tea" and author of "Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

A nurse and former mountain climber, Mortenson has devoted himself to building schools and promoting literacy in remote corners of central Asia. Following are excerpts of his May 17 speech.

Azize [Hussain] was the first girl to graduate from high school in an area of over 4,000 people [on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border]. . . . When Azize went to elementary school, the boys threw stones at her because they said girls can't go to school. . . . And Azize graduated from high school, and in 1998 she decided to go to maternal health care training to learn how to deliver babies and do pre- and postnatal care. . . .

In her valley, before she started working there, there was no medicine, no doctor, no clinic, no ambulance, no public health, no insurance, no nothing. Every year five to 20 women died in childbirth. . . . Since she's come back now, in the last decade, her pay is $1.50 per day. Not one single woman has died in childbirth because of a brave young woman named Azize. . . .

It's such an honor to be a nurse because I've been able to be with children when they're born. I've been able to be with many people when they die. Nurses, you have the ability to give people death with dignity. With medicine, we try to keep people going. We do everything we can do to help them along but nurses . . . we have the great gift of compassion and to help people also with the transition when people die. . . .

In 1984, I took care of my first AIDS patient. I was in Indianapolis at St. Vincent hospital. At that time we had to put on a lot of stuff, all over, cover our bodies, look like a spaceman going in to take care of the AIDS patient. I remember this gentleman who was basically three days away from his death and I was very busy checking all his vitals and everything and then as I left the room, he just grabbed my hand and said, "Please stay with me for a minute." He said: "I know I'm dying. I just want you to hold my hand and be with me." It was something I never forgot, so I'm asking you: Despite all the technology, despite all the computers, and despite everything, never forget about the patients. You are their advocates. Remember to take time out to touch somebody and to be with them and give them dignity, whether it's in birth, in life or in death.