78. A Journey of Healing

78. A Journey of Healing

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

A Journey of Healing

Turn your wounds into wisdom.

~Oprah Winfrey

On a sunny July day, my younger brother Terry was killed as he attempted to cut down a tree. He died instantly of traumatic brain injury. In the blink of an eye, I no longer had a brother.

As I grieved, I found I wanted to pay tribute to my brother’s life. I enrolled in nursing school, got good grades and made the Dean’s List. In my junior year, I began carpooling with Jeanne, one of the intensive care unit instructors. Driving fifty miles a day, we shared family stories. I explained how Terry’s death affected my decision to return to school and how fearful I was just thinking about treating a patient with a traumatic brain injury. She listened intently and seemed sympathetic.

The day before our senior year ICU clinical experience, Jeanne — my instructor and carpool friend — assigned me a traumatic head injury patient. Thinking of what lay ahead, I prayed silently for help. I could NOT let my personal experience interfere with giving this patient the best care possible.

Upon entering the ICU, I learned that my patient was in surgery, having his second operation to relieve pressure from a blood clot on his brain. The doctors had given him little chance of survival. Terry had no chance at all, but this guy did. He was still here, fighting for his life, and I was going to do everything in my power to help him. I prayed for my patient and his family in the waiting room.

That afternoon and evening I studied the patient’s chart. His name was Sam, he was nineteen years old, the youngest child of a large family, and his accident was eerily similar to Terry’s. He worked for a tree-trimming company and while strapped in his safety harness trimming branches, a falling branch hit him in the head. He hung upside down in the tree for nearly an hour before being extricated. He suffered a fractured skull with a large blood clot in his brain. A device was in place to relieve and measure the pressure inside his skull. A ventilator helped him breathe, he had arterial lines, IVs and a urinary catheter. He had been given last rites. Twice.

The next day, just after dawn, I saw Sam for the first time. His head was swathed in bandages; he was unresponsive and his tall frame was motionless in the bed.

My knees were weak, but I knew every detail of his physical condition, medications, procedures and his monitors. In ICU, the details can mean the difference between life and death.

I can do this, I said to myself. All my hard work to this point came down to this day and this patient. I laid my hand on Sam’s arm.

“Good morning, Sam. I’m your nurse for today. My name is Nancy.” I told him the day of the week, the date, the time, what the weather was like. I chattered on while gently caring for him. There was no response.

Out in the waiting room, I approached a tired-looking woman and introduced myself to Sam’s mother. She told me all about Sam and the family. I asked her to bring in a radio to play his favorite music and family pictures to tape in easy-to-spot places around his cubicle. I shared my plan to gently stimulate Sam in the hopes of helping him come out of the coma. She was pleased that she could help.

Each day we carried out the plan. I talked to Sam and played his favorite music. While completing all my nursing duties, I told him about the leaves changing colors and about the apples and cider for sale along the roadside. No response. It was hard to see this young man remain so still.

One day, as I struggled to put one of his heavy, long legs into his pajama bottoms, I said, “Sam, it would be great if you could help me. Can you lift your leg?” His leg rose five inches off the bed. I tried to remain calm. “Thank you, Sam. Can you raise the other leg?” He did! He could hear and follow commands; he had bilateral movement, but still, he had not regained consciousness or opened his eyes.

The next morning, I was told that during the night Sam had started breathing against the ventilator. As I came into his cubicle, I put my hand in his and told him I was there for the day. Sam squeezed it! I grabbed his other hand and asked him to squeeze again. He obeyed. I encouraged Sam all day. By the afternoon, he was breathing totally on his own and no longer required the ventilator.

Still, his eyes remained closed. As I worked with Sam the next day, he turned his head from side to side to follow my voice wherever I was. I brought his mother into ICU. “Sam,” I said, as his face turned towards me, “your mom is here.” A tear slid down his cheek. “Sam,” I repeated firmly as I came to stand behind his mother, “your mom is here. Please open your eyes.” We watched him struggle to lift his eyelids. His eyes fluttered open, he looked toward the sound of my voice. “Sam,” I said, “look at your mom.” Suddenly, recognition dawned in his eyes and he began to sob. I partially lowered the bed’s side rail for a long-awaited mother and son embrace.

Sam continued to improve rapidly and was soon discharged from ICU to the rehabilitation unit.

A few weeks later, while walking through the rehab unit, I heard someone call my name. It was Sam’s mother. We hugged. She was smiling. I saw a tall, handsome young man standing next to her. His previously shaved head had grown into a crew cut, beginning to hide the many scars.

“Hi, Sam, how are you?” I said.

He cocked his head and spoke haltingly. “Your voice sounds so familiar.”

The lump in my throat only allowed me to respond, “I was one of your nurses in ICU.”

His words came out haltingly. “You are Nancy. My mom told me all about you.”

Here was a true miracle standing before me. For two weeks, my life was intertwined with Sam’s as we each experienced miraculous healing.

One day, while Jeanne and I were driving to school, I gathered the courage to ask her why she blindsided me by assigning me a traumatic head injury patient when she knew my story. She explained that she believed in my nursing skills and even more so in my character. She wanted me to face my fear while she was there to watch over and support me. I was touched by her kindness.

A few months later, I received flowers from Sam’s family. The card read, “To our Angel!” Sharing this journey of healing, Sam and I each had someone watching over us.

~Nancy Emmick Panko

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