14: Nocturnal Poet

14: Nocturnal Poet

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

Nocturnal Poet

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

~Dalai Lama

Over forty years ago, as a newly minted RN, I spread my wings to Los Angeles, California. I had been promised a position working days in the ER, my dream job. But when I got there, all that was available was night shift on the orthopedic ward. I took it unhappily, because going home wasn’t an option.

I hated night shift and disliked orthopedics. The combination was not a good one for me. I was cranky and I knew it. I tried to make up for it, with only dubious degrees of success.

The ward on which I worked was a curious combination of specialties, orthopedics and isolation. It was a very busy ward and we were understaffed for the patient load. We were constantly running, always behind on just about everything. It was a very stressful way to nurse and we staggered home at the end of every shift thinking that the patients deserved better.

All of which did nothing to reduce my grumpiness.

We gave a lot of medication on nights: lots of painkillers but mainly IV antibiotics. It was hard to give meds quietly in a dark room. I usually woke at least one patient. I’d bump into something, or shine the flashlight too close to someone’s eyes. But I tiptoed in and tried as hard as I could to get the antibiotics set up quietly. It was a sort of game; if I got out of the room without waking anyone, I won. Strange things make you happy on nights.

One night I was doing my stealth invader thing when the patient I was trying to medicate suddenly sat bolt upright and said, “Here, this is for you.”

Amazingly, I did not scream or drop the medication.

The young man from Hawaii had come in with a persistent skin infection on one side of his face that had extended into his jawbone. He had been treated several times with oral antibiotics with no effect, so he was now an inpatient getting the “full bore” treatment with IV meds. I had never actually seen his face until that moment. The right side was swollen and disfigured with the infection; it must have hurt. But that didn’t stop his impish grin as he handed me a folded piece of paper.

“I wrote this for you,” he said. “Read it later.”

I forgot about it until I was home cleaning out my uniform pockets. I’m not sure what I thought it would be, but as I read it I had to sit down. This was a love poem and yet not. He was saying how nice it was, in this place, to see someone smile, not at him particularly, just smile. “Wahine (Hawaiian for woman), always smiling” was part of what he wrote.

For the next few nights he was awake for his 2:00 a.m. dose and we had a handful of short, whispered conversations. I hadn’t realized he had been hospitalized several times before for this condition. His positive outlook was quite amazing given how long he had been sick and how little the treatments were doing for him. We were both homesick; me for snow, him for his family back in Hawaii. He was in L.A. for college, tending bar to support himself, and he loved surfing. All this had stopped, of course, when the infection started. No one had any idea how he’d caught it. Yet there was no whining, not a bit of self-pity. He planned on getting better and getting on with his life and couldn’t see the point of wasting energy on a negative outlook.

We talked about my “smiling.” I couldn’t believe anyone thought I was smiling all the time. “But you do,” he said. “You smile at the guy when you put up his medication. You smile when you take it down. You smile when you come in at 6:00 to take our temperatures. No one else smiles here. They act like they hate being here and taking care of us is a nuisance. But you always smile. You must love your job.”

I had to leave because I was crying.

I was off for a couple of days and when I came back he was gone, discharged, I supposed. A couple of weeks later I bumped into the doctor responsible for my nocturnal poet. I asked him how this patient was doing. It turned out he had been transferred to another hospital where they could give him even stronger drugs for the infection.

I still have that poem. A few times I’ve dragged it out and reread it when things were particularly tough. I’ve often wondered if he knew how much he affected my nursing practice, because now, I smile. Boy, do I smile. No matter how tired or out of sorts I feel, when I approach a patient, I nail a smile on my face that would light up a dark room. People actually think I like working nights, twelve-hour shifts, Christmases, through my daughters’ birthdays and school concerts. As it turns out, if you can smile about it, it’s better already.

~Trish Featherstone

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