Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Life, Death & Compassion

They talk about nurses eating their young(older nurses giving new nurses a baptism by fire of sorts and making their early nursing careers hell) and I experienced a bit of that but much more so have experienced having nurses that want to teach me absolutely everything they know. 

In nursing school during my intensive care rotation I was assigned to what was then called the CT-SICU- the Cardiac Trauma Surgical Intensive Care Unit at a hospital in Des Moines, IA. It opened my eyes forever. As a rural Iowa girl, I had never seen a gunshot wound close-up and here I was caring for multiple victims. I felt like I was inside a television drama, it was so surreal. 

The nurses took me under their wing when they realized that I wanted to learn everything I could and I found myself called into rooms here and there to experience all kinds of amazing things like the bandage change with a wound nurse where I gently placed my hand inside a patient's back to change his dressings and could feel his lungs inflate against my hands. I was in awe of the human body and spirit at the same time that I was horrified by the terror that we humans cause other humans. 

The nurses on this unit were often jaded and weary and tired. They seemed oddly buoyed by my naïveté and would listen kindly as I asked fervent questions. 

I often would stay after the other students in my class had left. The other nurses wanted me to follow the wound care nurse and see a unique many reasons that they wanted me to stay. My instructor didn't want me to stay after she left, but I just wanted to learn and I would stay and follow one particular nurse, with chronically smeared glasses and a big heart, around. I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember her name.

One evening we were holding vigil at the side of a young man that was dying from gunshot wounds. They had not yet found his family or friends and he was going to die whether alone or with them. We were not his blood or kin nor had we ever met him before, but this nurse said that we would hold vigil. 

He was on full life support and had been unconscious when someone drove to the ER entrance and dumped his body out of the car and onto the sidewalk and had never opened his eyes since. We didn't know his identity. He looked like a young teenage boy, maybe 15. 

We huddled around his bed, doing all of the things required to keep him alive-- managing the machines that kept him breathing, his fluids, his BP- while also talking to him and singing to him and reassuring this young man/boy whose identity we knew that we may not find while he was living. I became tearful many times and scooted quietly out of the room to calm myself. The doctor had told us that he had mere hours left to live and our actions were as much to soothe his soul as to care for his body. 

While in the hallway, I heard many of the other staff. They were making fun of the nurse and I that were taking care of this young man. I heard snippets from the doctors and nurses talking about how this young man was surely a gang-banger and didn't deserve this compassion. I was horrified. In my naiveté, I had imagined healthcare workers to have had boundless compassion. I was witnesses for the first time, the other side of healthcare, the jaded and exhausted side. 

But, that nurse, the lovely nurse who had taken me under her wing and was consoling a child who may never really hear her, told me a truth that I have carried with me for always. She told me that all humans have compassion. Some more and some less. We all carry the compassion that we are comfortable with and if we were to judge those in the hallway damning our actions, we were also judging them without compassion. 

And, so- we forgot those men in the hallway and we sang and calmed and loved on the boy we'd never met who in lay in the hospital bed before us until he took his final breath. 

I will never forget that moment, as long as I live. I was honored to hold that young man, a complete stranger, in his final moments. 

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