“She’s the one who saved my life today.”
I looked shocked at the older man who matter-of-factly described to his family my job in such a flattering fashion. I had not considered it that way at the time; I had just acted. That’s what I’m supposed to do. But as I left the room later and turned quickly before I started to cry too, just like my patient’s daughter, I realized that yeah, I guess I had saved his life.
I stood at the nurse’s station half an hour later giving report on this man. A man who a couple of hours before had been in respiratory distress, his heart racing at a beat far too fast to last, his eyes bulging with that look of fear and dread someone has when they’re feeling like they might die. He was the man who “had the difficult, demanding family” per the report I’d received at the beginning of my shift. He was the gentleman whose leg I had patted earlier as I told him honestly, “I love you.”
Whenever I heard in shift report that a patient and their family were difficult to please I took it as a challenge. I used to take it with dread, but over the years I’d learned to take it with a grain of salt, or to take it as an opportunity to use my gift. I don’t know if it was my friendly smile or my slow, southern drawl, but for some reason folks just found it difficult to be mad at me. I was what they called “a people person.” I found that strange since I’m a self-declared introvert. I felt uncomfortable talking to acquaintances at a social gathering, but put me in a frightened, sick patient’s room and I flourished.
I had entered his isolation room slowly, announcing my arrival. I had briefly pulled down my mask at the door because I wanted him to see my smile. It was genuine. I had pulled up a stool so I could sit level with his face, and I had grabbed his hand as I spoke. I spent an extra amount of time I didn’t have answering his son’s many questions, and then I had repeated the same answers to his daughter, even though she was present the first time I spoke them. I enjoyed giving people the answers they were seeking.
That afternoon when I had rounded with a specialist I grinned under my mask. It always made me feel good to hear the same reassuring answers I’d spoken before repeated by a colleague. It didn’t bother me that they trusted the words more after they came from a physician’s mouth. Instead I just focused on the fact that I had been given the first opportunity to provide what they needed. It’s like he was reiterating what I had said, and that made me smile. My smile made me remember my prayer that morning in the shower.
I had been so tired. Waking up early, twelve to thirteen hour shifts, and a family to attend to as well. It’s no wonder I was tired, but some days did feel worse than others. Some mornings were more difficult to get going. Some mornings were filled with angst for the upcoming day. Some mornings you just didn’t feel it. You didn’t want to do it. You wanted to crawl back in bed. The thought of others depending so highly on you caused almost a sense of dread. You didn’t even know if you could keep your eyes open on the drive in, much less be held responsible for life and limb.
In the shower I had prayed about my career. “God, if you want me to be able to keep doing this I need you to return my joy for it.”
Ha. When I stood at that man’s bedside, after a day full of decreasing his apprehension and increasing his and his children’s knowledge on his health, and I listened to him describe me so loftily, I felt the joy. I felt the purpose. I felt the calling. I felt the pride, but you know, the pride in a good way. I got to do something really special. It wasn’t just special because it was Nurse’s Week and they were giving us some compression socks for our trouble. It was special because people said I saved their lives, because people cried happy tears over my efforts, because they said thank you for helping them finally understand their dad’s prognosis and listening to their fears. I felt joy that I could be given the power to do that; to lessen anxiety, to give back a heartbeat, or to simply hold the hand of a dying man if no one else was there.
There’s joy in realizing your purpose is higher than yourself. Sometimes you just have to be reminded of that. Nursing is exhausting, often exasperating, and endlessly demanding. But it’s also so much more. It’s the tears of gratitude, it’s the life-saving grace, and it’s the high calling that allows you intimate entry into people’s lives to make a difference they will never forget. He told me that as I left, you know. He said, “I’ll never forget you.”