Guest post by M.J. Butler, RN
A good friend of mine once asked me: “How do you unwind after something like that?” My friend Kelly is a nurse, just like me, and what she was talking about was one particular day at work which affected her very deeply. She wasn’t talking about the average hectic day in the ICU where you hit the floor running as soon as you punch in; and don’t stop until you punch out 8, 12, or 16 hours later. Kelly was talking about one of those days which brings you to your knees. Her quest was to find out: how does one go home after a day like that, un-wind, re-group, and carry-on?
The patient was a 20 year old young man who had suffered catastrophic injuries during a car accident. He had sustained internal organ damage, as well as numerous fractures, and a closed head injury. He was taken from the emergency room to surgery, and then admitted to the ICU, where the staff cared for him non-stop for the next 8 days. His mother and father never left the hospital. Their love and concern for their son’s survival touched everyone so deeply. They stood at his bedside for endless hours, each holding one of his hands, and talking to him. For eight days and nights, they helped the staff bathe him, change his bedding, massage lotion onto his skin, and turn and reposition him in the bed. They were active participants in every aspect of his care.
The first two days, his condition remained unchanged. But then after the next three days, he seemed to improve. He did not regain consciousness at first, but his vital signs had improved. Repeat CT scans showed positive progress, and he was weaned off the ventilator and onto a nasal canula. Two days later the chest tube was removed, and he seemed to be doing better than ever. The next day, as his parents stood by his bed speaking to him, his eyelids began to flutter. His eyes opened and closed several times, rhythmically at first, and then finally they stayed opened! As his eyes looked up into the loving faces of his mother and father, they reached down, held him in their arms, and thanked God. As for my nurse friend, along with the staff who witnessed this miracle awakening – well let’s just say there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
This took place at 5pm on a Saturday, and as my friend, who was the nurse assigned to this patient, contacted his physicians to update them of these wonderful changes in his condition, she couldn’t help but marvel at what she had witnessed. It really seemed that love, prayers, good medical/nursing care, and perseverance had equated to an all out miracle. My friend had cared for this young man for six of the eight days in the ICU, and she finally was witnessing the fruits of her labor – what a great feeling! She could only imagine how his parents must feel; they seemed just overwhelmed with joy and gratitude after endless hours at his side.
My friend’s shift ended, and as she prepared to head to the locker room to gather her things, and leave work for home, a massive change filled the air. This miracle-patient, whom she had just told: “I’ll see you tomorrow” was coding! There came the overhead announcement, just as she reached for the locker room door: “Code Blue, ICU…Code Blue, ICU”. She thought to herself, there’s no way, it can’t be, he is stable – this is probably the new patient they had just admitted into the ICU after surgery. She took her hand off the doorknob to the locker room, turned around, and headed back down the hallway, just as a nurse’s aide rushed toward her. The aide confirmed that he was coding, and that his parents had asked for her. He had become tachycardic all at once on the telemetry monitor, then sudden pulseless V-Tach, with loss of consciousness.
The code was called as multiple workers rushed to assist, and his parents were guided away to the ICU waiting room, in order for the staff to work. My friend entered the ICU visitor’s waiting room and looked into the eyes of these loving parents, who just a few moments earlier had been celebrating their son’s awakening after eight days in a coma. “What is happening?” They asked her. She told them that she didn’t know, and that she had come straight into the visitor’s waiting room when the aide told her where they were. She sat with them the entire time attempts were being made to resuscitate their son. All the time she could not help but notice the look of pure love, concern, and terror in their eyes.
About 30 minutes later, a hospital chaplain entered the waiting room. The four of them held hands and prayed together. Then they continued to wait. After what seemed like an eternity, the attending physician, along with the ICU charge nurse entered the waiting room. They all stood up as the doctor came toward them. “How is he?” His father had asked – eyes filled with hope. The physician said in a slow, calm, steady voice, “I am so sorry to tell you both this. We did everything we could to stabilize him, but our efforts failed. After over an hour of resuscitation efforts, we have stopped the code, and he has died.” His parents fell into each other’s arms as sobs of grief filled the room. My friend Kelly felt tears rolling down her face; as a mother herself, she couldn’t even begin to imagine the heartbreak they were feeling.
Kelly told me she had gotten home late from work that night – her kids were already in bed, her husband was watching TV. She kissed her husband as he asked her, “How was your day?” She thought to herself, what an incredible question; one that couples ask each other every day. She told him, “Today was very, very tough. A young patient died that I had been taking care of for the past week.” She headed upstairs to kiss both of her kids as they slept. Then she took a shower, put on her pajamas, and thought to herself: “How do you un-wind after something like that?” She decided that she needed to talk to someone. She gave me a call, and asked me if I had a few minutes to listen to her talk about her day. Finally after she had decompressed into exhaustion, I told her to get some rest and to call me the following week. The next week we spoke, and she told me that an autopsy had been done on this young patient which showed the cause of death as an embolism. He threw a clot. He had died almost instantly.
About six months after that, I myself had one of those horrific days at work. I needed someone to talk too – someone who understood exactly how I felt, because they had been there too. I got Kelly on the line ASAP.
Being a nurse is like no other career in the world. The dynamics of the job are endless, as well as the trials and the rewards. You really do care about the people you serve, and their families deeply. That’s part of what being an R.N. is about – selfless caring. Yes, nursing is a career, but it is also a passion. My hat goes off to my fellow nurses with great pride – for they are unsung heroes every single day of their lives.
For more writing by M.J. Butler, click below to view her latest fiction novel:
“A New Year’s Eve to Remember”