Weeks after nursing school ended and I had passed the boards, I found myself in a newer community hospital in the most multifaceted unit that I've (since) ever worked. Our patient population ranged from general medical and fresh postoperative patients on one wing to hospice care and those suffering from cancer on the other.
It was Christmas Eve and I had hurried onto my unit with a heart as heavy as stone. Being my very first Christmas as a registered nurse, I could think of a million and one other places that I'd rather be. I collected my usual 7-8 report sheets with a sigh and gazed down each hall from the main nurse's station desperately searching for a glimmer of hope. Each wing glowed as fluorescent as each day before without an inkling of holiday spirit. Sterile was the first word that came to mind. Sterile, cold and empty.
My charge nurse stared down the hall, sighed and rose from her seat after report. I watched as my comrade in teal waltzed down the hall in a sort of trance, switching off numerous lights to dim the halls and stations. Each click echoed in unison with the rings of monitors, call bells and voices, all so far from comfort and so horribly near to loneliness.
The holidays can manifest in multiple ways throughout the patient population. Some individuals are torn from family due to illness when others have been far removed from love for a long time. There are some who need somewhere warm to lay their heads whereas others had a home, but their families could no longer care for their needs. Regardless of race, creed, character or status, I could feel every soul in each room pulsing with a need to feel loved and cared for.
I visited my rooms in the evening rush, scribbling my name on every wallboard and issuing a request for patients to call when assistance was needed. Then slowly, almost hesitantly, I walked into the familiar room of a man suffering from an illness that was killing him in the slowest and most excruciating of ways. I needed this room to be the last room to round on in my initial greeting of that Christmas Eve.
With each popping sound, my Danskos made as they hit the floor I could feel my heart beating out of my chest, aching in a way that scared me to the bone. It was the ache, that fear, the one that told me there was nothing I could do to help this man but to make him comfortable as the time of his death drew near. I've always hated feeling powerlessness and being out of control. It is not my choice, nor my duty to make this choice for anyone. It is my abilities that can and will comfort them in those times, and with that, I must make my peace.
He laid there in his bed, shaking and shivering as his monitor rang loudly, alerting me of his erratic tachycardia. My pulse quickened as I watched each QRS complex draw closer and closer to the next, then just as suddenly as it rose, it would slow down into comfortable sinus. I exhaled loudly. His head turned with a quick whip and through his glistening skin and grimace, I saw this incredible grin begin to appear. "It's been a few days since you were here." He chided playfully. I could only nod at first, working to find the air to vibrate through my vocal cords. 'It has been too long.' I smiled as I looked around his room. 'I see that the CNAs have decorated your room since I was last here.' He nodded proudly and then began to cry, his chin quivering uncontrollably. I rushed to his side and begged him to tell me what was ailing his spirit. "Someone's sweet daughter brought me this," he held up a hand-made glass ornament. "For me," he said in utter disbelief. "Why me?" This young man asked me, completely perplexed and spent from his constant fevers. 'I think she knew, deep down in her heart, that you truly needed a Merry Christmas.' This dear man only nodded, patted my hand and gave me leave very subtly with a wave of his hand. "I'll be ready to talk later," he said painfully, "I think I need a few minutes alone." I turned one last time before leaving his room, watching him gaze at his gift as if the meaning to life and his suffering was bubbling up inside of that glass ornament.
The shift carried on its normal routine in some aspects, but something amazing happened at about 3 AM. My charting was near completion, medications had been passed, no one was calling for pain medication, and everyone was sleeping soundly in their beds. It was as if a deep peace washed over the unit, even the nurses were feeling quiet and thoughtful.
Once again my pulse quickened as I felt my entire person being called to his room. I could almost hear his turmoil in my head and feel it through to my core. I rose from my warm seat at the nurse's station and headed down the hall. His Christmas decorations glittered outside the door in an almost warming glow. The miniature tree was something close to dream-like and perfection in such a sterile and cold place. All of that negativity I had been brooding over had melted off of me like the winter cold. In a near panic, I feared I had roused this poor man from sleep and hurried back to the door. It was so quiet and peaceful in that space, he just had to be sleeping. "Please don't go," his whisper cut through the silence with aching haste. "Please... Sit here with me". His eyes were brimming with large tears and that strong chin began to quiver. I didn't know what to say, but I tried: 'I... I thought you may need a friend or some company. I didn't mean to wake you, I know you need your rest."
He grabbed my hand tightly and squeezed it with all his might. "I don't want you to go." He paused. "In fact," he sniffled back tears, "I was just thinking... How much I love each and every one of you." I leaned forward and stared straight into his eyes. I could see nothing but warmth and truth. 'We truly care about you, your life and all of your goals. We wanted to help you get strong enough to be home with your loved ones tonight.' He shook his head, openly unashamed of his weeping, "This is where I am supposed to be tonight." With conviction and poise, his face changed to the most serious and yet sincere look I'll never forget. "The moment you walked in here and smiled at me. I knew I was going to be okay, even if just for the night. Your kindness has given me hope. So, at least... I know I will live to see this Christmas Eve. Can you sit here with me? To give me strength? I can't do this alone anymore." Surprising myself, I was only able to nod because I had begun to cry myself.
At that moment I could see his strength, his pain, his heart and the true nature of his spirit. In the beginning, this was just another shift to me. But to him, I was providing him strength, hope and a means to fight another night, maybe even another day.
It's funny. At the time, I thought he really needed me. But, to be completely honest, I really needed him. I needed his strength and his faith in me to remind my self-doubt and fear that I have a gift. That I have the ability to help encourage and restore hope in the hopeless, faith in the faithless and power in the powerless. The care we give and the words we use acts as a channel where there is an opportunity for more than just our capabilities to shine through. Whether you believe in God, Allah, Buddha, juju, paying it forward, or any other positive force in this World, there (to me) is no doubt that something greater is at work in us and through us. We are a means.
We held hands until another fever arose and he began to uncontrollably shake, wincing in pain. It was then I had to break the strength in that hand grasp and rush for medications that would help him fight for his life. It may have been dangerous on my part, but at that moment I took his illness personally. Until hand-off that morning, it was my and his personal battle to live, to live as long as he could through that Christmas morning with as little pain as possible.
Before heading home I stopped to see this man, this epitome of fight and life, light and hope lying restfully in his bed. The sun shone through the window and covered him in a blanket of warm light. That's how I remember him. That's how I remember hope.
When I forget, I pause. I think of his furrowed brow, the strength in his hands, the plea in his voice, and the resounding "Thank you," he whispered as we watched that gorgeous glow of his tiny Christmas tree.