She was gurgling. Oh God, she was gurgling as she breathed, and my heart was certainly beating even faster than the high rate I saw displayed on her bedside monitor. I grabbed shakily for the Yankauer suction above her bed. I knew that’s what it was called. I was in my first semester of nursing school, so I knew what the suction was for, but I hadn’t actually used one on a real person before.
My mother didn’t look like a real person at all. Laying there in the bed, swollen, bruised, with about a billion lines and tubes running from her. She had been flown to this trauma ICU bed after a horrific car crash, and being in the best hospital in the area should have given me peace, but it didn’t. The truth was I was scared to death, scared I was gonna lose my momma, and despite me sticking that suction thing half-heartedly into her mouth, she was still making a sound like she was breathing through water. I hit the call button frantically.
Where was the nurse?!! I wondered. Couldn’t she see this was not a good situation? Shouldn’t someone be stationed right here at her side until she could at least open her own eyes and ask for help? Why was it taking so long?!! Why wasn’t the nurse coming?!!
Fast forward twenty years and now I’m that nurse. I’m the one who wants to be at your momma’s bedside, but who also has someone’s father, husband, and son in the other ICU room. I’m the one who is limited by space and time in my physical body, but who more times than not, wishes I wasn’t.
Here’s what you may not realize as a concerned family member.
- I am concerned too. Your family member is also important to me. They’re more than a patient number. They’re a human being who is loved. I have been the daughter at the bedside, and one day, as my husband and I age, I realize I may be the concerned wife also.
- I don’t want you to wait. Seriously. I really don’t. I want to attend to your need as quickly as possible, but when you don’t see me I am attending to another patient’s need at that time. Another important, unique, loved family member who occupies another bed. Or perhaps I am even tending to myself. Trust me when I say you want a nurse with a full belly and empty bladder. We can focus so much better in that condition.
- I know that being sick is difficult, and I know that watching someone you love fall ill is even harder sometimes. I understand that emotions are raw, nerves are frayed, and angry words come easy in such a stressful, uncertain environment. That doesn’t mean I don’t get hurt feelings or frustrated occasionally, but it does mean I try my best not to because I truly sympathize and empathize with each patient and family member. Those are the things you cannot see under the surface of my calm, efficient manner.
When the nurse finally arrived to my mother’s bedside she quickly took the suction from my hand. She seemed so blasé, as if she was not concerned at all. She went about quickly settling my mother down, and then just as quickly left the room. I wasn’t sure what to think at the time, although I was grateful that my mother seemed to be breathing easier. Looking back I realize I didn’t know that important oxygen readings were being transmitted to a monitor outside the room so they could know immediately if my mother was in respiratory distress.
I didn’t realize at the time that what may have been concerning and scary for me was a natural and expected presentation in a critical care setting. I took the nurse’s demeanor as indifference when it was in fact an attitude of efficient knowledge and calm clarity to act on my mom’s best interest.
I didn’t take into account other patients. I only saw my mother. I didn’t see someone else’s mother in the very next room. And that’s ok; it’s human nature. Even today if one of my children found themselves in the hospital, my mommy heart would feel they were the patient needing the most attention at that moment. The thing is, nurses feel the same about their patients. To nurses, each patient is important and deserving of our care, but it’s our difficult responsibility to triage out our resource of self as fairly and efficiently as possible.
But here’s the other thing I probably didn’t see back then. I am quite certain that nurse cared for my mother. Cared, as in had great concern for her welfare as a human being. From my experience, nursing is a chaotic, challenging, and frequently a poorly compensated profession. So if a nurse is there it’s because they have a heart for the vocation. Their patients are their purpose, and even if it may not appear that way, they care.