Several years ago, the week before Christmas, I entered the nurses station at 0700 in the Emergency Department I worked in for morning report. As I did every morning, I scanned the patient tracking screen to look at how many patients we had and if I recognized any familiar names. I spotted a patient who I’d taken care of multiple times and who I enjoyed taking care of. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to take care of him again. I asked the night shift nurse for report and looked forward to entering his room.
I quickly learned that my patient was not doing well. The doctors suspected that he was now in the terminal phase of his illness. Through the course of the eight hours I took care of him, even after I’d infused over three liters of IV fluid and transfused two units of packed red blood cells, I could not control his pain or keep his blood pressure stable enough to give pain medication and he was beginning to display signs of organ system failure. I spent hours in that room that day not only caring for him, but helping his wife accept what was happening. After I transported him to intensive care and helped him get comfortable in his bed, I put my hand on his, got close to his face, looked him in the eyes and told him to take care. Our eyes were locked for several seconds. He said thank you and wished me well. He died twelve hours after I transported him to intensive care and I still relive looking into his eyes for the last time.
The holiday season isn’t an easy one for nurses. Not because we work long hours, sacrifice and miss our own holiday gatherings to care for others. Because we see how illness impacts people’s lives. To be present to watch patients and their families experience these things on the holidays leaves a long lasting effect on healthcare workers. Why? Because we see the look of desperation in our patient’s eyes where we know they are wondering if this illness is going to pass, be chronic or even life threatening. We observe families trying to be brave for their sick loved ones when we know they are afraid. We hear the screams from the room where the cardiac arrest was just pronounced dead. We see the look of fear as our surgical patients are being wheeled to the operating room with all evidence of the human being they are having been stripped away from them and replaced by a hospital gown, colorful footies and a warm blanket. We walk through the surgical waiting area and see the blank stares of families as they wait for a surgeon to come out and tell them if their loved one has cancer. We try to do everything we can to cheer up our inpatients when they are stuck eating hospital turkey on Christmas day or can’t eat at all because they are too sick. We observe our Dementia patients roaming the halls of the long term care facilities and wonder what they were like before Dementia robbed them of their memory. We thank God profusely that our own loved ones are healthy and waiting for us to come home. Our shifts end and we go home, shower and try to shake it off. Deep down inside, over the years memories similar to the one I shared resurface for all of us.
The brightness and warmth of the summer sun replaces the darkness of December and the months fly by. Six months after my patient passed away, I’m at work one summer afternoon and I hear my name being called from across the ER. I turn around an realize it’s my patient’s wife. She quickly walks up the me, hugs me and tells me she’s doing fine. She’d just been the see a chaplain whom she was seeing monthly. She said she’d come down to the ER to specifically find me and tell me how she was doing and to say thank you. I was so moved by that I rushed right up to one of my good buddy coworkers to tell her. Her response was simple, powerful and true, “This is why we do what we do”.