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.