Can you keep a secret? I just turned the big 70 in the month of October. Although I had already enjoyed a wonderful pre-70th birthday celebration with family/friends, I had wanted to do something memorable on my actual birthday day. The idea of walking the Camino Frances in Spain seemed like the perfect choice for me.

Just before embarking on this journey, I offered a seminar at the Clinica Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain on the topic of Healing Families: What Every Nurse Knows & Needs to Know and Do. After my week’s journey of walking the Camino, I could have also offered new insights about the kindness of strangers and it’s application to family nursing practice.

But first you may be wondering where exactly is the Camino Frances and why do people walk it. The Camino Frances is the most popular of all the Camino routes to Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain, to the shrine of the apostle St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Pilgrimages in the middle ages on the Camino were predominantly for religious reasons; while modern pilgrimages are less about religion and more about about finding peace, seeking answers to tough questions; a time for reflection, thinking, healing, and for some simply the challenge of daily long distance walking.

For me, it was providing a time of peaceful reflection coupled with the challenge of daily long distance walking averaging 20-22 km per day. But the unexpected gift on this week’s journey was the encounters with strangers and their kindnesses! A pattern of interaction evolved with each new stranger of curiosity of why each of us was walking the Camino; a nonjudgmental attitude for whatever the reason; and some act of kindness from sharing food to encouragement that you could walk the last 6 km to the next village.

Nurses are also initially strangers to all the patients/families we meet. So how do we as health professionals treat strangers when we first encounter them? I was enlightened on this walking journey that the same ways of meeting strangers on the Camino were equally if not more important with those strangers experiencing illness. Kindness, curiosity, and non-judgmentalness need to be in abundant supply with those experiencing illness.

Some of the strangers I encountered were not seeking any particular healing or some great epiphany. But they all possessed an openness to whatever they may learn about themselves or others in their encounters with strangers. Other Camino walkers were definitely hoping for healing and/or trying to find answers to quell their suffering.

Is this not also true for the strangers we meet in our professional lives who become known to us as our patients and family members? Some are not seeking an answer as to why they are experiencing their illness but are open to learning how to best cope or manage it. Others however are suffering deeply and cannot seem to find the answer to their questions of “why me?” or “why my family?” or “what am I supposed to learn from this illness?”. In addition, do we as nurses have an open heart and mind to what we might learn from these new strangers in our lives, these new patients and their family members?

Another insight while walking the Camino was that because we were all walking in the same direction, we all arrived at the same village each night. The pace did not matter. Just as with illness, the pace of healing varies with each family but the ultimate goal is the same…coming to a peaceful place with the illness.

Although there were times when I would walk a few hours alone on the Camino Francis, I also met and talked with strangers each day and experienced their kindness. For example, I marveled at the two young occupational therapists from Israel that I met who had already grasped the relational aspect of families and illness. They loved to share their food while we talked. I was grateful and delighted with the young German fellow who played Happy Birthday on his harmonica to me.

But it was Maria from Mexico who perhaps best exemplified the reciprocal nature of “stranger relationships” and the kindnesses that are exchanged. I met Maria on the Camino one day as we were walking along a particularly arduous ravine. Maria had come to the Camino with a goal to heal her broken heart. Her husband had left after 26 years of marriage and three children. He found another woman shortly after he moved out of the family home but Maria wondered if this woman was the real reason he left. Knowing of this “other woman” invited Maria to try harder to win her husband back. Rejection is a powerful invitation.But each of her efforts was met with a brick wall of cold and cruel behaviors and words.

I offered Maria the idea that by resisting her situation, i.e. her husband was not going to return, was causing her to suffer more. As is often the case with those who suffer from a broken heart or an illness, she wondered why this had happened to her since she was “not a bad person”. I left Maria with the mantra “stop resisting what is”. She liked this idea very much. I also offered her a commendation that I was incredibly impressed that she would travel all this way to the Camino to find healing and that I believed her healing had already begun because she was doing something different! Each step was part of healing journey to begin to accept what is.

While we were talking about her situation, we sat and rested on a couple of rocks. I had developed a pain in my leg that day and Maria just happened to have the perfect ointment for it Kindness invites kindness. When we parted at the village of our final destination that day, we hugged and wished each other well.

I did not see Maria again. But I do not believe it was just circumstantial that we met. Just as with our patients/families that we care for, we usually meet those that we need to meet and that need us.

In our nursing practice, we too hear stories of illness suffering and broken hearts. Just as with Maria, the very act of listening was healing as well as the offering of new, facilitating beliefs and commendations. Patients/families help us to heal too, when needed, if we are open to the notion that the kindness of strangers is a profound, relational experience.

A Biblical scripture seems to capture what might be the essence of the power and kindness of strangers.

Hebrews 13:2 Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.

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