I was on my second day of a weekend rotation, and despite the typical chance of an uncertain assignment, I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting into that shift. Indeed I felt confident I’d receive the same patients back that I had taken care of the day before, and since they were good ones I was pretty stoked. I mean, although you never know what can happen in a hospital setting, and feces can hit the fan pretty unexpectedly and quickly, getting the people back that you already knew about had a warm, welcome familiarity to it. Easy peasy, right?
Anyway, I was happy that Sunday to learn that I would be taking care of the same patient load, and I glided confidently with my cup of joe to my awaiting assignment. I smiled sweetly through the clear glass at the elderly woman in the hospital bed as I listened to the night nurse’s off-going report, and I nodded with contentment that no negative change had occurred in her condition over the last twelve hours. She was so darn sweet, after all, and it was good to know she was on the road to recovery.
After report I drifted happily into her room, stethoscope around my neck, and a warm greeting on my lips. “How are you today, my dear?”
I anticipated a kind, grandmotherly response similar to the day before. After all, that day before she had astounded me with her strength, determination, and lack of complaint. She carried a diagnosis that made young men cry in pain, but she had only replied stoically when questioned, “it just hurts if I talk out loud.”
I suppose I had expected the same that following day, but upon my arrival instead of a smile I was greeted with a scowl. I watched all morning as the gentle, soft-spoken woman from the day before now yelled at her spouse, and cursed at the broken TV remote. It was like she was a completely different person, and while her choice of four-letter words shocked me, overall I wasn’t really surprised a bit.
This was life in a hospital setting, and the transformation before me was as commonplace as elevated temperatures and beeping IVs. Other than maybe a POW camp, I couldn’t think of many places that had the ability to change a person’s personality so profoundly as that of a hospital bed.
When faced with the stress of sickness, the pain of illness, and the uncertainty of failing health, most individuals became another person after a day or two in a hospital room.
It’s true. No other setting can make a calm man become angry, a patient woman become intolerant, and a soft-spoken person suddenly burst into a sweltering rage. The act of sickness causes a sweet, little elderly lady to become a cursing, mean-as-a-snake, old woman, and being forced to stay in an uncomfortable hospital bed makes a gentle, compassionate man suddenly spew derogatory statements your way.
So basically, as a nurse you are challenged with caring for people at their absolute worst. And not just physically. You are tasked with trying to soothe physical pain, but also mend a broken spirit. You are expected to act kindly and professionally to a population that hurls insult hastily and painfully, even as their daughter states flabbergasted, “Dad’s not normally like this at all!”
There’s a whole lot of things that make the field of nursing a challenging one to perform, and number 1,859 is the patient’s ability to transform their personality on a dime. The perfect patient can become the perfect offense in a second. A kind man can become cruel, and a nice lady can become hateful. And none of it is your fault at all.
So what do you do? For me, I knew that somewhere underneath that seething, volatile woman was the caring, but frustrated lady from before. She was tired, disappointed at her slow recovery, and most likely in pain, even as she tried to grin (or scowl) and bear it. So I treated her the same that day as the day before. Perhaps even better.
Nursing is about treating illness, but it’s also about treating the person. Sometimes that involves treating a person who isn’t treating you well, and sometimes it’s about treating a person well who can’t reciprocate your care. No one wants to be sick, but when they are, they are. And sickness infects more than just the body. It infects the emotional well-being too.
It’s not easy seeing people at their worst, but it’s worth it to know you’re getting them back to their best. For when the cantankerous old man is released back home he can love on his dog, and spoil his grandkids. My little lady would leave with her supportive, understanding (and thankfully for him, very hard-of-hearing) spouse. Her smile would return, and her strength would multiply in the face of all she endured while in my care. She would likely not remember me, or even the mood swings she experienced, but she would exist happy beyond my hospital’s walls. And because of my hospital’s walls.
So again, in healthcare we bring out the worst in people, but through their perseverance and healing we eventually bring out their best. It’s just that trying part in between that’s the challenge, and it’s reason number 2,693 that nurses should be celebrated.