By now, most of you probably know I’m a nurse. I write about it frequently. I can’t help it…there’s just so many worthwhile stories to tell. Or maybe, it’s just because that’s what takes up most of my life. I could write about taking my kids to basketball practice, but I don’t think that would make for much of a read. Well, now that I’m thinking about it, I do write a lot about my divorce. No, not the actual divorce, I guess. More like, “life after the divorce”. There’s been some pretty worthwhile stories to tell there, too. There was that time I fixed my leaking washing machine, and the stories of validating my children’s feelings when I couldn’t make things all better. And we can’t forget the time I unclogged the dishwasher drain…my grossest story, yet! But today, I’m telling another nursing story…
This one takes place back when I worked at the local hospital. I was caring for a sweet older woman named Janet. She wasn’t feeling well, and was admitted for testing. We got along great. She was a third generation townie and one of the local elementary schools was named after her father. She was a retired teacher from that school, and just so likable…I took to her right away. She was classy and well-educated, yet funny and down to Earth. She always had her pristine, blue robe on because it just wasn’t appropriate for someone like her to walk around in a johnny. I think maybe I was on my second or third morning with her when she received the news…cancer. Metastatic. No curative treatment. Damn.
I saw the doctor walk out of her room. He had already told me the diagnosis before going in. My heart was heavy as I walked down the hall. We’d only had a few days together, but still…it was uncomfortable walking in there. I’d say this was around my 3rd year or so of being a nurse. I’d seen patients get bad news before. I’d seen patients die right in front of me before. The thing is, 3 years is not a long time, as far as nursing goes. I still hadn’t acquired the skills you don’t learn in nursing school. The human skills. Connecting. Communicating sincerely. The things that are the best part of my career now, were not second nature to me, back then. I kept waiting for those instincts to kick in, to know what to say or do to make someone emotionally feel better in times of despair, but it hadn’t happened. I didn’t know how it was supposed to happen, but I’d seen it in the older nurses and figured it just had to come with time. I hoped I would even be able to tell, when the time came…if the time came. I had the physical skills part down pat, but that other part…I just didn’t have it yet. I knew that walking in her room, and hoped she wouldn’t notice.
I softly spoke. “Hi Janet”. She was sitting up in bed, with her hands clasped on her lap. We looked at each other. This is where that emotional part would have come in handy, but like I said…I didn’t have it yet. I started to go towards her IV pole, just to check it, so I’d be doing something other than standing there, not knowing what to say. I walked around her bed and held her IV tubing up, scanning the line. It was working perfectly fine, so that was a kind of dumb idea. I let the line go and met her gaze again. “Well, it looks like it’s bad news”, she said. She looked kind of sad, but also kind of shocked…like she was watching a movie, but a movie of herself. Pretty much a normal reaction, I suppose. I’d seen it before, in my other patients. I’d gotten a pit in my stomach with my other patients, too…but this time felt different. That’s when I realized, Janet wasn’t just any patient. We had formed a bond. I sat on the edge of her bed, wanting to say something to make her feel better. That’s a problem, right there…because there isn’t anything you can say to someone who was just told they have a terminal illness to make them feel better. Nothing. So, I sat there and sighed. And she sighed. As we looked at each other, it suddenly didn’t seem awkward at all. It seemed real. I mean, the kind of real you get when life hits you hard with a fast ball. I knew that’s how she felt, and I could feel it, too. I think just sitting there, absorbing that fast ball with her, was enough. I think it was the most comfort there was to give.
After a few minutes, she sort of shook it off…that shocked feeling. It’s like she stopped watching the movie and came back to her real life. She said to me, “Well, what do we do now?” Crap. How the hell was I supposed to answer that? I couldn’t tell her to just sit there alone while I tended to my other patients. I couldn’t tell her to think about which hospice company to use. I couldn’t tell her to make sure her affairs were in order…though those were the only thoughts running through my head. I started to feel nervous, when all of a sudden, I blurted out…“Want some ice cream?” She just stared at me for a few seconds, then looked at the clock. It was 10:30am. She looked back at me, and slowly but surely…a smile formed. “What do I have to lose? Let’s eat ice cream at 10:30 in the morning!” She giggled, and I joined her in the laugh as I trotted out to the kitchen and came back with two chocolate Hoodsies. We sat side by side that morning, looking out the 3rd story window, contemplating life, smiling and eating ice cream. And that’s when I became a seasoned nurse.