Optimistic Light

Optimistic Light

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

Optimistic Light

Let your light shine. Shine within you so that it can shine on someone else. Let your light shine.

Oprah Winfrey

I survived a brain stem stroke and my future dwells in dark shadows. I am a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. All I can do is lay here. I wish for death . . . complete darkness.

I hear two nurses talking in hushed tones. An alarm buzzes. “It’s just room number 120. He’s always pushing his call button.”

The younger nurse asks, “Should I go check on him?”

“No, he’s fine. He probably just wants to gripe about something. He’s just a difficult patient.”

“If you’re sure . . . ” she says doubtfully.

The disturbing conversation stops as my family walks into the room. In the past three weeks, I had been diagnosed with spinal meningitis, had a cardiac and respiratory arrest, stroked at the brain stem, and been deemed brain-dead. The ravages of worry are stamped on their pale faces.

The nurses’ words lurk in my head, and I hear them again and again when my family leaves to get lunch. I’m alone. I am terrified, but cannot speak and have no way to tell anyone. I don’t think I’m a difficult patient, as they defined that other man. I hope the nurse responds to my ventilator alarms. What happens if my ventilator hose pops off?Will someone come running? They ignored another’s alarms, will they ignore mine?

Alone . . . all alone. The ventilator is my sole companion. I count the seconds between each breath. One, two, three, four, five, six, air in, air out. One, two, three, four, five, six, air in, air out . . . over and over I count. It took longer to get a breath! No, I just don’t always count at the same rate. Panic stirs in my chest. What happens if the machine doesn’t supply a burst of air? Another breath eases my trepidation.

A new nurse, Mary, takes care of me all week. The anxiety builds each day as the sun sinks lower in the sky. Will that other nurse, who thinks I’m a pest, be on duty tomorrow? At night I lay awake and agonize. Each day as Mary greets me, I breathe a mental sigh of relief.

Tomorrow arrives and Mary ushers in a new day. She talks to me even though I can’t talk back. She is five-foot nothing, if that, with a bouncy, upbeat personality that makes people instantly like her the minute she bebops into the room. Just watching her check my blood pressure, temperature, and arrange my pillows lightens my spirits.

If only I could tell her about the conversation I overheard.

After a week of virtual isolation, Mary introduces me and my family to an alphabet chart. She knows I can’t move or talk and empathizes with how lonely, boring, and frustrating it is for me—lying by as conversation flies around me.

Mary teases me, “Your days of daydreaming are over. Your family may enjoy your silence, but today that is all over. By blinking your eyes you can start telling them what to do and how.” She winks conspiratorially.

Mary explains the method to help me communicate with the chart. “Someone holds up the chart and points to each letter.” She demonstrates as she instructs. “To say, ‘Hi,’ they point to A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and at H, you’ll blink. They follow the same process for the letter I—A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, and at I, you’ll blink. Anytime you want to say a word, just use the board. If someone asks you a yes or no question, you answer with one blink for yes and two blinks for no. Any questions?”

Now, I can tell someone my fear.

I blink once to indicate yes, I have a question.

“Ask away.”

I spell out. “Can I ask not to get a nurse?”

“Sure.” Mary raises her bushy eyebrows. “Why?”

Painstakingly, I recount the conversation between that horrible nurse and the trainee.

“I’ll take care of it, don’t you worry. You know most nurses don’t feel that way or act like that.” Mary’s right. I never experience any such instances with any other nurses.

The shadow of despair recedes under the light of Mary’s competent and kind ministrations. I don’t have to face each day with apprehension or wonder if I will get that nurse or anyone like her again.

I spell words and construct sentences in this fashion all during the day when my family’s around. They stick close to me after I share that story, except when visitors come. They can stretch their legs and take a breather during those times or anytime Mary is on duty.

Mary is my most frequent visitor. Each day she works, she perches on my bed and chats with me on her breaks, because she wants my company. I think I get far more from these conversations than she does. The time given freely makes me feel normal. I am more than something to be pitied. I’m not just a patient. I am her friend. She gets two fifteen-minute breaks a day and she spends them with me. Most days she comes and talks during part of her lunch with me, too. Mary stays with me days and encourages others to use the board, but the nights leave me in silence.

Mary stays late after her shift and teaches the night shift how to use the board. I miss Mary at night, but another nurse watches me closely and talks to me in her downtime. Hours elapse. My family is at home. With the free time on my hands, in the darkness I think about what my future holds.

Before Mary’s morning break, I ask my mother about my condition and she explains it the best she can. “You have locked-in syndrome.”

I spell, “What does that mean?”

The color drains from her face. Her features crumple and tears spill down her cheeks. She fortifies herself with a deep breath and spews out the answer. “It means you will never move anything but your eyes, nor breathe without a ventilator, nor eat by mouth, nor speak.”

Mary pops into my room while Mom explains this to me. “Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t. I’ve researched what they can do at the rehabs. They’re going to teach you a bunch. You can control all kinds of things with your eyes, like a computer, your television, radio, and all kinds of other stuff. You won’t walk and talk, but you can still do a lot of things. We just need to get you well enough to go to the rehab. You’re going to be a busy lady.”

Leave it to Mary to shine an optimistic light on the challenges ahead.

More nurses like Mary take care of me throughout my rehabilitation. They are all a blessing, but Mary is special. She chased away the darkness with a ray of hope, when I had none.

Jessica Kennedy

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