39: Unresponsive

39: Unresponsive

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses


When we accept tough jobs as a challenge and wade into them with joy and enthusiasm, miracles can happen.

~Harry S. Truman

After a few days off, I came back to work at the extended care unit and heard report on my patients. One young woman, a new patient, stood out.

The night nurse said. “She had a severe brain injury and is unable to speak or understand. She’s unresponsive, incurable. She has a retention catheter and has to be fed.”

I got her breakfast tray, and as was my custom with new patients, responsive or not, I began to talk to her. “Good morning, my name is Irene,” I said. “I will be your nurse for the next few days. I am going to feed you your breakfast now.”

As I fed this young pretty woman, I continued talking as if she could understand me.

Suddenly she spoke. “Every time I open my mouth you put something in it.”

I stood up, stunned, staring at her as she repeated it. I put down the fork. “Excuse me for a minute. I’ll be right back.” I raced to the head nurse and told her what had just happened.

“What?” she said. “That isn’t possible. Her records say and her husband confirmed that she can’t talk or understand because of the severe brain injury.”

“Well,” I said, “she can talk!” I went back to finish feeding her, and as I talked to her, she spoke. This “unresponsive” woman was speaking and understanding!

All the nurses were excited and dedicated to her recovery now. We made a plan to speed her progress. When any of us entered the room we would talk to her and not leave until she answered, no matter what. If we said, “Good morning,” she had to reply, “Good morning.” If we asked her how she was, she had to answer with something.

Within a couple of weeks we didn’t have to wait long and she began talking before we did. Her husband was astounded. He coaxed her to respond to him, too.

It didn’t take long before she was feeding herself, combing her own hair and sitting up on her own. However, she still had to be in a wheelchair and needed assistance from the bed to the chair.

One day, she asked, “Can you take this catheter out?” She was worried about wetting the bed but she wanted to try living without the catheter. The nursing staff promised that we would come ASAP to assist her to the bathroom as soon as she put her light on. The doctor agreed that she could try.

The first day the catheter was out, everyone on the floor, whether she was their patient or not, sprinted to her room like marathon runners whenever her bell light came on. It worked. She made it to the bathroom almost every time. After a while, she had better retention and we didn’t need to race so fast.

Next, the goal was for her to walk. And she did, step by unsteady step, first with assistance, then eventually on her own.

Then one glorious day, this “unresponsive incurable” woman went home. Her loving husband, who thought he had lost his wife forever, extended his arm and she wove hers through his, and she walked out, to care for her young family and get on with her life.

~Gladys Swedak

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