24: I Am a Nurse

24: I Am a Nurse

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

I Am a Nurse

We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails.

~Author Unknown

I had been working in ICU for just over two years when I met her. Hope came to us suffering from respiratory distress in the late stages of breast cancer. She was 39 years old and had been fighting her battle on and off for years. It seemed that everyone knew that she was not going to win the war, that is, except for her. She had a teenage daughter at home and an eight-year-old as well. She had been a single mother for years. She was also one of the lucky ones in that she had one of the best familial support networks I had seen in my time in the ICU. Her parents had long ago taken her and her children into their home to assist in raising them and caring for their daughter through all of the surgeries and treatments.

Hope was not an easy patient to care for initially. She was on Bi-Pap, which is a miserable experience for the heartiest of individuals, and was in considerable pain around the clock. She would have periods of very low oxygenation, which would result in confusion and combativeness. It made it difficult for some people to get along with her. She also had a few complicated dynamics involving the father of her younger daughter, which placed the nursing staff right smack in the middle. It was a very sticky situation that strained both her family and the staff, and we sheltered her as best we could. We also balanced the assignments so the same nurses were not taking care of her all the time.

She was with us for weeks, sometimes improving enough to move to the Medical-Surgical floor for a few days. Inevitably, she always returned to us. While she was not prepared to give up her fight, she let us know regularly that if she were going to die, she certainly would not be doing it in the hospital. The nurses and physicians caring for her were realistic about her chances, as were her parents. Nevertheless, as long as Hope wanted to fight, we were there to help her do that.

I cared for her often and in her moments of lucidity she expressed her regret and, surprisingly, the guilt she felt at having spent so much of her younger daughter’s life battling cancer instead of being her mother. As we talked, I realized that Hope was actually much closer to letting go than she had let any of us believe. As trust developed between us, she let me in on the secret of her unbreakable motivation. She was holding on every day, trying desperately to last until her daughter’s ninth birthday, which was just a week away. She didn’t have her younger child come into the ICU often; she hated to let her baby see her there, hooked up to IVs and machines, unable to even get out of bed to care for herself. However, she was excited to have her coming for her birthday. She abruptly stopped talking about it then, and looked away from me, teary-eyed. I handed her a box of tissues and waited for her to continue. She would not say anymore, just kept shaking her head, until she finally whispered, “I can’t go to her birthday party.”

Watching this woman, this mother who was living the last of her days in the hospital, away from her family and friends, finally letting a few cracks show in her strong façade, was more than I could bear. I could not take away her cancer and I could not make her well enough to go home. I could, however, be her voice, her advocate, and act as her connection to the outside.

I was scheduled to work on her daughter’s birthday. I sat down with her first thing that morning and asked her if she would like to throw a little party for her daughter, here in her room. She didn’t say anything for a moment and her eyes filled up. I’m sure mine did too. Then she nodded her head and quietly said, “Okay.” My husband brought in cupcakes. We got some colorful balloons and tied them to chairs. I went to the gift shop and picked out a stuffed dog (her daughter’s favorite animal) for Hope to give to her. I brought everything to her room, including a birthday card for her so she could write a private message to her daughter. We wrapped her dog together.

When her daughter came in later that day, her face lit up as she realized she was having a surprise party. We all sang “Happy Birthday” and then stepped out to give the family some private time. I can’t say now who was affected more: Hope and her family, or myself and the other nurses who realized we were watching the last birthday celebration between mother and daughter. My heart broke for them as I thought of my own baby, tucked in at home with his father. There were many tears that day, of both happiness and grief.

Hope died a few weeks later, peacefully, on our Med-Surg Unit. Her family was with her at the end and I ran into them in the hallway right after she passed away. I exchanged hugs with everyone, including her little girl, and expressed my sympathy. They seemed at peace, knowing that their loved one was finally resting. As I watched them walk away, I found myself hoping that when they later thought about Hope’s final days, they didn’t just remember her fight and the sadness. I hoped they also remembered those few moments of real happiness when she got to put aside her illness and love her family, cuddle her daughter, and celebrate the life she was leaving behind.

I love being a nurse. Many people search for years for their purpose and mine has been clear for as long as I can remember. This situation affected me tremendously and to this day, I am so glad to have been a part of Hope’s life. I have since left the ICU to work in Labor and Delivery, which brings me full circle. Instead of assisting those in their final moments, I welcome new life into our world. I put a lot of heart into what I do, as I am sure my coworkers can tell you. Every patient I care for leaves with a tiny piece of me, and that is okay. There is enough of me to go around. I am all nurse.

~Melissa Frye

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