I do not want to become so invested in the details of my professional day, that I become oblivious to the movement of life that is the quintessential “perk” of my job as a nurse.
A few years ago, on a day like any other, I checked on a patient at work just prior to leaving for home. This gentleman was elderly and very ill, and I was so very frustrated that the day’s staffing shortage left me feeling inadequate as his nurse. This was not a new feeling and any nurse reading my words will identify with this sentiment. I can clearly remember walking quickly down the hall and ruminating in a state of annoyance over the negativity of my day. When I reached my destination, I flew past the first patient resting closest to the door and threw my gaze to the second patient whom I was more concerned with due to the more critical nature of his situation. This gentleman was on his side with his back to me-a smaller framed man with smoky-gray fuzzy hair that stood straight up all over his head. His skin was leathery and sagged off of his bones like he had been given too much for his skeleton to hold…a sign of the strapping man he used to be in his younger days. His skin was ashen with lack of proper oxygenation and the soft whoosh of air from the oxygen tubing whistled around his nostrils. His eyes were closed.
He clasped the hand of a younger man who sat directly beside the bed-close enough that his upper body was leaned down into the bed next to the patient. At that moment, the fact that I had intruded washed over me like icy-cold water. The younger man, who appeared middle-aged himself, looked up at me with the most pure eyes, pleading. “Papa is sleeping” he said quietly smiling at me. I fumbled out an apology for my abrupt presence. The gentleman had strawberry-blonde hair and matching moustache. He was simply, but cleanly dressed. He sat with his hand held by his father. With a hint of bashfulness he said “as soon as I sat down he did this” motioning towards the intertwined hands. “Are you the afternoon nurse?” he asked. I explained that I was about to end my shift, but that the other nurse’s would remain on until early evening. I quietly asked if I could do anything for his father. His son looked at me with the most exquisite mixture of love and pain, and tears swelled uncontrollably in his eyes. To describe the feeling his face evoked in me would be like trying to explain how love feels.
“He seems to be okay” he said, “I think he just needs me to hold his hand”. “He turned 89 earlier this month…I hope we get to see his 90th”. The raw emotion of that moment could not have stirred my soul more. Middle-aged son transformed to a little boy unashamed to express affection for his father. Staring at his Dad as if he would either fade away, or be willed back to life by the power of desire. Hanging by the thought that this situation was veering down a path he was unwilling to walk on…the prospect of life without his father. “I haven’t seen him this comfortable all day” I offered honestly. His son smiled. “I don’t want to keep you” he said…”enjoy your day”. Enjoy my day, I thought. Mulling incessantly the increasingly unmanageable workload and toxicity of my professional environment, I felt immediately embarrassed. A man who is watching his father actively engaged in the dying process has the presence of mind to see into my turmoil and advise me to enjoy my day. How do I learn from this?Driving home that night I concluded two things-to not learn from this would be a grave ignorance of the human spirit. I was also truly able to appreciate that, regardless of age, one is always someone’s child. I believe that when people are in a state of pain in their soul, their being becomes a magnet for other people who are also in an unsettled state of being. I also believe that this is all part of a larger picture and an attempt to facilitate learning and supporting of each other. Sadly, I also believe that we ignore many opportunities to connect, just as I did that day. Instead of widening my radar to encompass others, I narrowed my view until I could not see anything but my own turmoil. It took someone at a more raw level of emotion to point that out.