From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose


Time cools, time clarifies; no mood can be maintained quite unaltered through the course of hours.

Mark Twain

“Dave, Channel 9 News is in the lobby,” the hospital receptionist called to inform me, rather matter-of-factly. I grabbed a pen and small notepad and bolted out of my office.

This is it! I told myself, as I made my way down the hospital hall and into the elevator. Just one week on the job, this was my first real encounter with the press. It was 1988 and at twenty-three years old, I was one of the youngest people ever hired as press liaison for the city’s level-one trauma center, Denver General Hospital. My heart was pounding.

What could it be? I asked myself. A stabbing, shooting, or multicar accident? Maybe it’s a hostage situation and the SWAT team has taken out some crazed lunatic.

Either way, I was to assess the situation, gather the pertinent information, glean the relevant facts, and disseminate them to the news media in the most cohesive, articulate, and professional manner. Take a deep breath, Buddy. It’s showtime.

As the elevator doors opened, I stepped into the hospital lobby and was taken aback. Instead of a television camera and a reporter, there was a large group of people milling about in the hospital lobby, many wearing the “9 News” insignia. Speaking in hushed tones, there was concern on their faces as they hugged and consoled each other.

I approached a young woman in the group, identified myself as the public relations representative of the hospital, and asked if I could be of assistance.

“Yes please,” she implored. “Our friend and coworker was just in a bad accident and we just need to know how she is.”

Clearly needing to just talk to someone, she told me of this wonderful woman named Sandy who was one of the best-loved administrative assistants at the news station. An older woman and longtime married, Sandy was going on a rare “girls only” vacation with her best friends. As she drove to the airport, she was in a terrible accident and was badly injured.

As the minutes passed, the crowd of concerned supporters grew until the lobby was overflowing with friends, family, and other 9 News staffers.

“We’re just so worried about her,” one said through her tears. “We just haven’t heard anything for a while and I wonder if you could get us some kind of update.”

“Let me go check and see where things are,” I told her, not really knowing what to do or even who to ask—I was so new on the job. Most of my time had been spent learning about the hospital and preparing for news media encounters—but not like this one.

As the major trauma center, Denver General (DG) had long been known as the “Knife and Gun Club.” Significant injuries were not uncommon at DG—nor were the crowds of worried families and friends. But all of this was new to me. Moreover, it was about 4:15 PM on a Friday afternoon. Many others had gone home for the weekend and there was no one to turn to for guidance.

What is my role here, if any? I asked myself. Was my job at DG merely to act as liaison for news stories about injured patients? Was it to act as hospital spokesman in times of crisis or public inquiry?

Here was a lobby filled with despondent, anxious people—many of them with very familiar faces—yet I was at a loss. It was Friday night. I was single and had planned to meet up with some friends. What am I supposed to do?

I decided that, with no direction available, all I could do was what I could. So I stayed.

As I turned to make my way to the double doors leading to the operating room, a nurse approached the group and was met with silence as the group surrounded her. “I know how concerned you all are,” began Janet. “Sandy was hurt very, very badly. She is in the operating room right now and just know that the doctors are doing all they can. Please be patient and we’ll give you updates as soon as we know anything more.”

With that she turned away. The group turned in on itself, drawing strength from each other.

Over the next several hours I made shuttle trips to the cafeteria to get food to the group, and acted as a “gopher” for anything else they needed. As the lone house-phone was constantly in use, I gave the very large group access to an adjacent office to make phone calls, as this was in the days prior to cell phones. Mostly, I did what I could.

As the evening wore on, the hourly updates from Janet became more frequent. Late in the evening, Janet returned with an always professional, but more concerned demeanor.

“I have to be honest,” she began. “The doctors are having a very difficult time. The injuries are very serious, but she is fighting hard. The doctors have commented several times how amazed they are at her will and her spirit.” That comment was met with smiles and nods from her supporters. “She wants to live,” Janet continued, “but the injuries are very, very serious. I’ll be back soon with some more information.”

As she turned to leave, I followed her into the holding area outside the OR and asked what I could do to help.

“Just be there to provide whatever they need,” she said, looking me straight in the eyes. “The next hour is going to be very busy and very challenging for them.”

The following hour was marked by more frequent visits by Janet, each reporting more grave news than the next.

“She’s fighting hard, but the doctors are struggling to stay ahead of her injuries.”

“Sandy has an incredible will to live, but there is only so much the doctors can do.”

“They are holding out hope, but the odds are against her.”

Finally, as 11:00 PM neared, Janet approached the weary group and said with tender compassion, “Sandy has lost her fight.”

Drained, the group quietly began embracing each other and turned to Sandy’s husband to offer support.

Feeling a bit like an intruder and out of place, I walked back to the OR with Janet and commented on how long Sandy had held on.

“Actually,” Janet said quietly as we walked, “she died over an hour ago.” Responding to the obviously confused look on my face, she continued.

“An hour ago, her friends and family still had great hope and weren’t ready to hear the news. Sandy had fought hard with an incredible spirit, but had I told them so quickly that she had passed, they would have been in shock and would never have heard those words about her wonderful spirit. The last hour was preparing them, emotionally and psychologically, for the news that they would have to hear. But now they know and understand everything that we did and everything that Sandy did to fight. The ending is the same, but they deserved to hear more than the simple, cruel fact that she died.”

Despite their profound grief, so many took time to thank me for my help, though I was reluctant to accept their gratitude. I had the easiest job that night—the surgeons had the hardest.

But it was a remarkable nurse named Janet who had the greatest impact on Sandy’s “family,” and on me. She was Sandy’s voice, to help all who loved her understand.

David Avrin

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