Martha, The Helpful Ghost

Sometimes a new grad needs a bit extra help -- even from a completely unexpected source. Nurses General Nursing Article


Martha, The Helpful Ghost

It's been my experience that every hospital has a ghost or two . . . although it seems that only certain people ever see them. I think part of it is you need to be open to seeing them and maybe part of it is luck. I'm just lucky I guess. In every hospital in which I've ever worked, I've encountered at least one ghost and sometimes more. Some of them are peaceful, kind presences, the kind that you suspect might be looking out for you. And then there are the angry or malevolent ghosts -- I've encounter a few of those. Fortunately, the majority of ghosts I encounter are relatively benign presences.

My first nursing job was in an older hospital with it's own diploma program. I was the first BSN ever hired in that hospital, and they had very little idea what to do with me. Just throwing me in to let me sink or swim (the same way they seemed to do with the diploma grads, who invariably swam) clearly wasn't cutting it. I was sinking and sinking fast. We'd had about eight hours a week of clinical when I was in school, and the reality of having 8 patients and having meds to pass, dressings to change and treatments to give totally overwhelmed me. I was certain I was the dumbest nurse who ever walked the face of the earth and terrified that I'd forget something or miss something or do something wrong that would cause irreparable harm to my patients. I cried all the way to work every night, I was so frightened and then cried all the way home in the mornings. The nursing assistants and LPNs were the ones who took pity on me and showed me some of the things I needed to know . . . not all because they had their own assignments too, but some. The charge nurses just complained to the manager (whose name was Ruby) about my ignorance.

It was a particularly awful evening shift -- I had eight patients, all of them sick -- and no LPN to help me with the treatments and prn meds. Just me and a nursing assistant. Shirley was good, but she wasn't enough to make up for the knowledge and skills I lacked. I ran all night, just trying to keep my head above water, and when I got the message that the night nurse wasn't coming in for some reason and I'd have to stay overnight, I actually broke down and cried. (In the bathroom, where no one could see me, but I doubt I fooled anyone.) "Please don't let me forget anything important or miss something obvious or kill someone," I implored the heavens. "Please help me get through this night." At 11 PM, I picked up seven more patients and the NA went home. It was just me, an LPN who had the other team and an NA we shared with the ICU. To say I was terrified would be understating it.

"Hourly sheet checks," the evening charge nurse told me before she left. "Make sure you check each patient at least once an hour to make sure they're breathing." That didn't sound too difficult, but in the midst of med passes and vital signs and urine tests (long before glucometers) and incontinence care, the sheet checks got shoved into the background. I was in room 1, hanging an IV in the dark when an older nurse wearing an old fashioned starched white uniform and cap tiptoed into the room and whispered, "Ruby, I think you'd better take a look at room 8." I didn't know who she was, but assumed she was the night shift nursing supervisor. I thanked her, and rushed down to room 8 where I found a little old lady who had been trying to climb out of bed over the side rails tangled up in her sheets, the gown and the side rails and about to fall on the floor. I straightened that situation out, and resumed my rounds. Again, the nursing supervisor found me to tell me that I needed to check out the patient in room 6. By the time I got to the doorway, she'd disappeared, but when I got to room 6 I found a patient with severe respiratory distress. I assessed the patient, called the doctor, and did all of the things you're supposed to do. By the time I finished, it was 3 AM and I'd missed a couple of rounds of sheet checks.

Flashlight in hand, I started at the far end of the hall and checked my patients, all of whom, miraculously, were fine. In one room, I found an elderly woman wide awake when I checked her. "Oh you don't have to worry about me, dear," she said. "That other nurse has been checking on me every hour just like clockwork." What other nurse? Not the NA from the ICU, and not the LPN with the other team of patients -- I asked them both, and they looked at me as if I was crazy. It must have been the nursing supervisor. But I got caught up helping a patient to the bathroom and forgot about the "other nurse." At 5 AM, I was once again making rounds -- "sheet checks". This time the elderly lady told me "Oh, you just missed that other nurse. She told me I was doing just fine." I wanted to thank the nurse who was helping me out, so I stepped out into the hall just in time to see her walking into the last room on my hall. I rushed down the hall hoping to catch her and thank her. But when I went into the patient's room, he was sound asleep and there was no other nurse. Nor was there anyplace she could have gone. It wasn't until that moment that the hair on the back of my neck started to stand up . . . .

Careful questioning of the LPN elicited the information that "there are stories" about an older nurse who still makes rounds on her patients thirty years after her death," but she put it down to "scary stories on a slow shift." I didn't see the nurse again, and didn't work a night shift again until Christmas Eve. Once again, I was overwhelmed and drowning, and the older nurse in the old fashioned uniform and starched cap came to get me to tell me about a brewing disaster with one of my patients. Only this time, I tried to follow her out of the patient room I was in. She disappeared when she got to the hallway. She just . . . wasn't there. Later I caught a glimpse of her walking into a patient room on the far end of the hall. Again, I got to the room and no one was there. I was pretty convinced that the "nursing supervisor" rounding on my patients wasn't real . . . or wasn't really there. But I didn't want to say anything to my colleagues because I was afraid they'd think I was nuts as well as incompetent.

On Christmas morning, our head nurse brought in home-made cinnamon rolls for both shifts. It was her tradition. She did it every year. And after I had given report on my fifteen patients, she beckoned me into her office and closed the door. "I was worried about you," she said. "You had a hard time catching on, but Martha gave you her seal of approval."

"Martha? Who's Martha?"

She silently reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a photograph of an older woman wearing the old fashioned starched white uniform and cap. The same woman who came to let me know every time one of my patients was in trouble. I don't suppose I had a poker face when I looked at that photograph -- I probably looked just as shocked as I felt. "Who is she?" I asked. "She came and got me when my patient needed help."

"Martha was head nurse here before I got the job," Ruby told me. "She was my mentor. She was a very dedicated nurse. She never married, and her job was her life. She died here in this office about thirty years ago. There are those who say she still makes rounds on her patients during the night shift. A few people claim to have seen her."

I was too shocked to say anything, but Ruby went on -- "She's been helping you through your night shifts, hasn't she?" Wordlessly, I nodded. "Well if Martha thinks you're worth helping out, you're going to be a good nurse someday."

I only saw Martha one more time -- she alerted me to a patient who was dying down the hall from me. Sometimes, though, my patients told me "The other nurse just checked me" or asked me who the other nurse was. "She's my guardian angel," I said. Maybe it was just because Ruby assured me it would happen, but one day things just "clicked" for me, and I felt like I "got it." I still had bad shifts from time to time, but I was beginning to feel like a real nurse, marginally competent anyway. Martha stopped rounding on my patients then, and shortly thereafter my husband got a job offer a thousand miles away and I moved. I hope Martha is still taking pity on cluless BSNs and helping them through their night shifts.

Ruby Vee believes in ghosts, poltergeists and things that go bump in the night. She's even seen a few!

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Specializes in Med nurse in med-surg., float, HH, and PDN.

Gosh, I could've used a Martha a time or two in my working life! Come to think of it, I've had a guardian angel work wonders for me more than a few times, it's just not one that is occasionally visible. I remember OLD hospital buildings and "starched" old-fashioned supervisors, and SEVERAL of THEM were scarier than a ghost!:eek:!!!!!!!


153 Posts

Wonderful story.


1 Post

Wow! Amazing story :)

gonzo1, ASN, RN

1,739 Posts

Specializes in ED, ICU, PSYCH, PP, CEN.

Too cool, what a wonderful experience to have had


832 Posts

Ruby, at one hospital I worked at, we had a ghost or two too :D. Like Martha, we had a nurse who at times "helped" us out. There were a couple of former patients too. I posted one story on the ghost story thread. So far, where I work now, there are no entities. I reallly don't understand why, but there aren't.

Ruby Vee, BSN

47 Articles; 14,024 Posts

Specializes in CCU, SICU, CVSICU, Precepting & Teaching.
ruby, at one hospital i worked at, we had a ghost or two too :D. like martha, we had a nurse who at times "helped" us out. there were a couple of former patients too. i posted one story on the ghost story thread. so far, where i work now, there are no entities. i reallly don't understand why, but there aren't.

or maybe you just haven't encountered them . . . yet.


45 Posts

Wow!! :)

Specializes in hospice and home health as a CNA/ HHA.

Amazing story. I hope there is a Martha out there for me when I graduate. :)


31 Posts

how sweet :)

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