Susanna Cheung, R.N., is a multi-tasker, but not in the technology sense. Her idea of doing two things at once means wheeling a patient alongside her desk to sit and chat while she finishes her paperwork. Conversation and sometimes sharing a song — "if they want to sing, I can sing with them" — works wonders for patients who need extra TLC, she says.

"I'm a charge nurse, so I have the privilege of not having to do certain tasks at certain times," explains Cheung, who works in the transitional care unit at PIH Health in Whittier, Calif. "When my staff nurses are very busy and a certain patient needs special attention, I try to make myself available."

In November, Cheung received a Hospital Heroes Award from the Hospital Association of Southern California for the warmth and attention she gives to geriatric patients. "She's the matriarch of the unit," says her supervisor, Shelly Necke, R.N. "She greets anyone who walks in with a big, happy smile. She has a strong relationship with all of the physicians, who rely on her to help guide the patient's care."

Recently, the unit had a patient who had suffered a disabling illness while vacationing in the area. "It was a complex discharge to get the patient back home," Necke says. Cheung arranged for a special ambulance discharge and stayed after hours to talk with the family over the phone to make sure the patient arrived safely, then followed up with them the next day to answer their questions.

With a career that's spanned 37 years, Cheung fell into nursing as a Hong Kong émigré in Newfoundland and later, while working in a skilled nursing facility, found she had a special rapport with geriatric patients.

"If you spend time with them, you really find out a lot of their life story," she says. "A lot of nurses have no time for it. But if you give them your upmost attention, you can learn from them."

Sometimes, breaking the ice is easy.

"First of all, my name is Susanna, so when I tell them 'Susanna,' a lot of patients already start singing to me," she says. "Then I know that they enjoy singing."

She's an enthusiastic sidekick to the volunteer guitarist who visits every week, often hurrying to the dining room to accompany him in a song or two for the patients. Once they sang "Amazing Grace" for a patient in the hallway who'd missed the sing-a-long because she was in physical therapy.

"She was so touched by that," says Cheung. "She said, 'Can we sing it one more time?' I said, 'Yes, we can!' These are the moments you want to seize; to be more than just a nurse. It's the human touch."

But not every patient wants to sing, or even interact. "You just go along with the patient," Cheung says. "If they're in pain, I try to see if I can address that problem. Then I keep going back to the patient. When I say I'm coming back in an hour, I will come back in an hour. And they expect to see me." That builds respect and trust, she says. "If a patient trusts you, you can help them solve some of their problems."

Cheung tries to pass along what she's learned; she's a preceptor for the new nurses in the unit. When they're doing their clinicals, they might have only one patient, so it can be a shock when suddenly they're on the job with six or seven patients.

"I want to instill in them that it's not only the task-oriented work that's important," Cheung says. "You have to look into the patient as a whole person. You have to look into some of the nonverbal communication, and you have to look into the family as a team to work with you, and teach them the daily living skills."

Although the new nurses might feel rushed, she advises them to make the most of each visit. "When you walk into a patient's room, forget about yourself. Be there at that time. You're 100 percent for your patients. That's how you get the nurse-patient relationship going, and when you have that, it makes working with the patient so much easier," she says.