This Brief, Beautiful Moment

Your fingers were laced so tightly around your cane that your knuckles turned as white as the hair on your head. You, and I assume your son, also with streaks of white in his hair, waited in the hallway, just outside the door of the room your husband was in. Your husband was just brought back from a cardiac cath procedure and was surrounded by nurses hooking him up to the monitor. I stood at the door, trying to observe as much as I could without getting in the way and offered you a small smile, as a way to reassure you that everything was alright. You could go inside if you liked, I said.

Your son put his arm around your shoulder and gently steered you inside as I stepped out of the way. I left to grab some extra blankets and when I returned I found you sitting in a chair at his bedside, talking to him in hushed tones. He was awake, yet groggy from the sedation. His face was etched in as many lines as yours, his hair the same color of snow. And for a brief moment I wondered if you two had been together your entire lives.

As I laid the extra blanket on top of him, tucking the sheets under his feet, the exchange that occurred between the two of you just then was something I’ll remember forever.

“Did you remember to pack my clothes?”

“Not yet,” you replied. “The doctor wants to keep you overnight.”

“Then you should go home, get some rest.”

You placed your hand on his cheek. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He then took your hand and gently brought your fingers to his lips and kissed them tenderly.

That moment felt too beautifully intimate for my eyes and with my heart full I quickly looked away. I quietly stepped outside into the empty hallway and hastily wiped away at tears that were threatening to fall.

How lucky am I? To be in a profession that allows me to witness people at their most vulnerable, their souls stripped down to its rawest state… and every now and then I get to see something as beautiful and intimate as this. I get to witness love in one of its truest forms.

Take My Hand

Getty Images. Selina Joiner.

I have this problem.

Last semester I finished my pediatric rotation in nursing school. I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in the pediatric ICU. The first week I cared for an eleven year old boy. From his chart I found out that before being admitted, he was suffering from dizziness and headaches. One day, he collapsed onto the ground during soccer practice. He was rushed to the ER. There was a tumor in his brain and so the doctors operated to remove it. Big success. The kid was on his way to recovery.

About a day after the surgery, he suddenly went into respiratory arrest. He had to be intubated. He became unresponsive to any stimuli. Unable to move. Unable to speak. Unable to breathe on his own. Unable to blink at will. As it turned out, he had cerebral edema so they inserted a shunt in his head to remove the excess fluid. And this was all done two weeks before I saw him. There had been no change in that entire time.

I half listened to the nurse as she talked about CPAPs and flow rates, the intravenous meds infusing through his veins, the shunt in his brain, the wound vacs… and all I could see was a broken child with so many tubes snaking in and out of his body at multiple points. I helped the nurse as she gently repositioned him to avoid pressure ulcers. As she continued talking and fiddling with the machines, I stood silently to his other side. His head was repositioned so that he was looking at me. And it almost looked like he was staring at my face, but there was no way to know if he was able to process what he was seeing. A lump formed in my throat. I did the only thing I could think of… I reached over and held his hand.

In that moment, all I wanted him to know was that he wasn’t alone. That he could feel my touch and know that someone was there. That there were people who still cared. Hell, if he was still in the “I-hate-girls” stage, I wanted him to feel that embarrassment of holding a girl’s hand, too. I wanted him to feel like a normal eleven year old boy, if only for just a few minutes. The nurse finished talking, turned around to see me holding his hand and smiled softly. She told me to find her outside when I was ready and left the room. I stayed a little while longer and told him my name, that I liked the stuffed teddy bear the nurse had placed under his arm, my favorite Spongebob episode from ten years ago, since that’s what was on TV at the moment.

As I said, I kind of have a problem. I get too emotionally involved. No matter who it is, a stranger or a friend, someone who ignores me or has hurt me… if they are suffering in any way, the neurons in my brain that control empathy go into overdrive, short-circuit, and stay stuck on ‘Max’. I suffer from a case of the feels, big time. I asked my nurse how I could provide compassionate care while still remaining somewhat emotionally detached. She smiled and said I was asking the wrong person. She had worked in both adult ICU and PICU for a total of 6 years and still couldn’t fully compartmentalize her feelings and emotions.

A week later, I was on the same PICU floor but was assigned to a different patient. As I passed his room, I couldn’t keep myself from peeking into the glass door. A doctor was with him and his family. Later, I looked up his chart. He could now blink on command… but also had an endotracheal intubation. One step forward but two steps back.

This was almost three months ago. I still think about him every now and then.

Surviving L&D in Nursing School

As I stood next to the nurse, holding onto one of the patient’s feet and helping her bring her leg closer to her body, facilitating her to push, I looked everywhere but the actual point of interest.

This was not what I had expected.

Back in high school I watched a lot of episodes from A Baby Story on TLC and it was always such an amazingly emotional experience. The mom cried, the dad cried, the grandparents cried (for the record, I don’t think I’d be okay with my in-laws watching me try to push a creature out of my hoo-ha), the jaded doctors and nurses shed the occasional tear, and by the end of the episode the bowl in my hand was a soggy combination of frosted flakes and tears.

Going into nursing school, L&D was always a specialty I was interested in. What could be more beautiful and magical than bringing a new life into the world, right? And who doesn’t love babies? I’ve had a couple of rotations that I’ve loved such as the ER and the OR so far. Although, I wonder if the ER is really for me. If restraining a mentally unstable patient who is flailing his arms and legs wildly, trying to connect a wayward fist with your face in an effort to knock you out makes you feel alive, then maybe you should step back and reevaluate a few things in your life. Or you could just be a closet adrenaline junkie.

And it’s not like I haven’t seen blood and guts (literally) before. In the OR, I watched as the surgeon cut open a patient’s abdomen and removed a section of the patient’s intestines. I watched in fascination as another surgeon performed a bunionectomy, and carved off a portion of a patient’s foot like carving a turkey, tiny pieces of bone flying off in every direction, and I never even flinched. So I thought I could handle something as natural as childbirth.

“Push.” The nurse counted to ten and then told the patient to relax for a bit. She turned to me. “The baby is crowning. Would you like to see?”

Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope…

“Sure…” Except I didn’t really want to. This was not like A Baby Story at all. This was frightening. The patient, a teenager herself, had already had her epidural, so it wasn’t like she was screaming bloody murder. At least not like the lady in the next room, who had decided to forgo the epidural and whose screams were scaring the shit out of me.

And there it was. The baby’s head. Hair covered in tons of mucus and blood. I felt the bile rise up in my throat and for an irrational moment I thought that if I looked too long I might go blind, kind of like how staring at Medusa’s head turned you into stone.

“Wow,” I began feebly. “That’s…” I couldn’t finish.

At that point, the nurse called the doctor, the first assist, and another nurse for the delivery. I watched as the first assist set up all the tools needed and I cringed when I saw the forceps.

“Can you take a picture of all of us?”

I turned around to see the father giving me his phone. Up until this point, he was sitting in a corner playing on his Nintendo DS. I could breeze through a few hours of Super Mario Bros on my siblings’ DS, no problem. But if I was going to have a baby in the next hour, I’d leave the DS at home. This kind of gives you an idea about how young this couple really was.

“Sure. After the baby is born, right?”

“No, I mean right now. while she’s trying to deliver.”

“Oh. Sure.”

As I fiddled around with the zoom feature on the phone, I had a monologue going on in my head.

Am I supposed to take the picture with her cookie all exposed and a living creature tearing her apart? Should I even keep that in the picture? Do they even WANT me to keep it in there? Do they want me to focus on it? Screw it, I’ll just take it and then they can crop it out later if they want.

So I took some pictures, trying to keep out of the way of the doctor and nurses, feeling like a pervert for some reason while I clicked away.

The doctor told her to put more effort into her push. I stood there with my back against the wall. The nurse told me later that I was standing with my ankles crossed, like I had to pee. And that all the color had drained from my face. I distinctly remember the doctor briefly glancing back toward me and asking me if I was okay or if I was going to pass out. To my credit, I didn’t feel faint or woozy. Just totally shocked.

Childbirth was not pretty. I was not ready for that amount of blood and… other stuff. Our instructor recommended that we wear goggles but I stifled a snort and thought there was no way, I’d be laughed out of the room by everyone. Might as well bring a raincoat while I’m at it. Besides, I didn’t think there’d be any splashing… until the doctor turned around and the front of his gown was covered with blood.

Push-Push

But as horrified as I felt, all of that melted in an instant when I heard the baby cry for the first time. I was rooted to the spot, completely mesmerized by this bundle of miracles, so fragile and so resilient at the same time. I think at that point I became painfully aware of my own biological clock and the need to pass on my DNA, which is funny because I don’t really have a particularly strong desire to have children. I think my ovaries may have started to hurt a little, too…

“Where the fuck is my Sprite and fruit cup? I told you to have it ready after the baby’s here! Why can’t you do anything right?”

Aaaaaaaaaand just like that, the magical moment was over. The guy scrambled out of the room to fetch his girlfriend her victuals. And I excused myself to get back to my instructor.

I’m not ruling out L&D as my go-to specialty, I still think it’s pretty awesome. And I’m sure I could eventually get over women howling in pain and my surroundings looking like a recent crime scene.

I think.