Purpose: To explore the experience of registered nurses (RNs) caring for patients in contemporary hospitals.
Design: The descriptive phenomenological study was based in the philosophical perspectives of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.
Methods: A purposive sample of 46 RNs employed in acute care hospitals in the southeastern United States (US) were recruited by network sampling. Data from unstructured interviews were analyzed in an interpretive group and themes were identified.
Findings: Four themes were identified: (a) extraordinary caregiving events, (b) incomprehensibility, (c) questioning whether anything else could have been done, and (d) “alone or together,” indicating the isolation nurses often experience while giving care as well as profound moments of connection, especially with patients.
Conclusions: Caregiving experiences resulted in an accumulating residue of moral distress which in turn became ground for future experiences in the everyday work life of RNs. Sometimes years later, participants were still trying to justify and understand the outcomes and perhaps to absolve themselves from blame. Participants were confronted with the limits of science and skill and plunged into the realm of existential questions for which they had no ready answers.