Death is inevitable.
And working at the bedside in a highly acute setting is a sure way to experience the death of a patient at some point. This past year I’ve witnessed loss, birth, grief, celebration, and everything in between. There are not many people who can say that’s what their typical work day entails.
Each passing life is accompanied by a unique whirlwind of emotions. An elderly patient reaching nearly a century of life provides reassurance of longevity and resilience. A young, terminally ill patient who won’t see twenty-one shifts reality toward harsh heartache. An infant who couldn’t withstand an episode of frustrated shaking strips humanity of all dignity for a split second.
And death on an oncology unit ignites varying emotions from an unexpected loss on an orthopedic floor… A unit full of healthy patients admitted for elective surgeries.
It’s only human nature.
After each experience with loss, I can’t help but trace my steps through every minute of care I provided. Did I take all vitals on time? Was I too late in applying oxygen on the third shift? Why didn’t I think to do this the day before? Or did I and I didn’t act… I know I advocated for a room with sunshine and a view since the hospital stay was prolonged… But was there already delirium and decline? Was this my instinctual, panicked response to sensing it might be too late? Because I did feel some panic… In every scenario, in hindsight, I felt panic.
I spent the day counting their breaths and listening to their heart beat… I bathed them in bed, held their hand…How did I miss something?
I don’t feel sorry for myself.
I feel sad for the suffering of my patient. My heart hurts picturing the removal of a wedding ring, many years too soon. And the thought of life cut short during innocence and youth. I grieve for the families I bonded with. I’m hoping they know I did my best with what I have. I want them to know I’m praying for them. And that I’m in this profession for them.
They tell us to not take it home with us.
But I’m not sure that’s truly possible. How do you receive the news that one of your patients died just days after your shift and not carry that with you? Didn’t I become a nurse to build relationships with my patients? Isn’t patient-centered care rooted in digging deep and breaking down barriers… breaking down my barriers… leveling with them… showing compassion… stepping into my own version of vulnerability alongside them?
I think that’s the wake-up call.
Because I did it, I became vulnerable. I was successful in connecting with my patients… and their families. My mentor’s voice rang in my head… “Treat every patient the way you would want your own mother to be treated.” It more than rang though, I actually implemented it. I felt it. I offered raw human attention and concern.
What I leave… and what I take home.
I’m not sure it’s possible to leave this at the hospital. Whatever “this” is… It isn’t a tangible, disposable thing. It’s a genuine, vital element of why I want to be a nurse. It’s me.
Each experience in the hospital, good or bad, becomes part of who I am. The good offers direction and confidence, the bad provides wisdom and growth.
I have found that it’s less about what you leave at the hospital and more about what you decide to take home. And how you take it home. What I choose to leave is guilt. And what I choose to take home are lessons learned and a deeper understanding… of what it really means to care for another human being and of the fragility of life.
“To do what nobody else will do, in a way that nobody else can, in spite of all we go through; is to be a nurse.” ~ Rawsi Williams