What We Take Home

As nurses we take home so much more than a paycheck. Try as we might to leave our work at the hospital doors, our interactions and relationships with our patients can have a lasting and profound impact on our lives. Nurses General Nursing Article


What We Take Home

We all have those patient stories that stay with us. The funny stories about patients on anesthesia. The difficult patients who make you question society’s sense. The lovely families who make our jobs just a little bit easier. And then there are encounters that leave such a lasting impression that you are not the same person you were before you started your shift.

Every holiday season, as I spend time with family and friends, I am reminded of one patient and her husband, and the fragility and brevity of our time here. How our plans, hopes, and ideas of the future can be devastatingly altered within a matter of hours, sometimes minutes.

Some years ago, on a Wednesday, I received shift report on a patient in her 70s. Unexplained abdominal pain, loss of appetite. I was working on a surgical oncology unit at the time, so you can imagine where this is going.

Tests were run and the following day my previously stable patient now needed oxygen and was becoming distended. I began my usual rounds to find a worried husband at his wife’s bedside. Still in good spirits, but looking a little tired, the wife greeted me with a smile and a reassuring hand for her husband. I went about the usual duties, taking vitals, listening, observing. They told me of their plans to take a cruise in January from Argentina. They were going to learn the tango and see the penguins.

As I left the room and made my way down the hall, the husband followed and lightly tapped me on the shoulder. His stoic smiles for his wife replaced with a look of fear and dread that has stayed with me all these years.

“I just want to take my wife home. I just want her to come home.”

For a moment I faltered. My carefully crafted nurse mask cracked as I felt the force of his fear and desperation. I had only known his wife for a few hours, in a hospital gown surrounded by monitors and sterile walls. In his eyes, I could see the years spent with a loving wife and partner. A patient to me, but to him the evolution of a person and relationship that had defined him so that he did not know himself without her.

All my experience and knowledge, as well as doctor conversations and preliminary tests, told me that he would not be taking his wife home anytime soon. I quickly rallied a comforting smile and reassured him that we were doing everything we could to care for his wife. We would know more soon, I said. In reality, we already knew.

More tests, more waiting. I printed off a picture of penguins and pinned it to the board in her room. We talked more of travel and tango. We laughed and spoke of the future. Occasionally they would steal glances at one another. Perhaps unknowingly aware of how little time they might have left.

Friday, my next shift, and the doctor’s prognosis. Widespread colon cancer had metastasized and was causing her abdomen to fill with fluid making it difficult to breathe. There was little to be done except make her comfortable.

The rest of that shift and the next are a blur after all these years. I remember moments as the husband sat helplessly at his wife’s bedside and watched as each breath became a struggle. Plans, hopes and dreams were slowly fading with each chest rise and fall. I watched as excitement for the future and memories yet to be made died at that bedside.

My next shift was the following Thursday. I learned that she had died the day before. I remember seeing the husband one last time as he came to the unit to collect some papers and belongings. He was not the same man I had met the Wednesday before. I was not the same nurse.

I think of that man and his wife every Christmas. I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude that I am still able to look into the smiling faces of my family and friends. My hopes and plans for the future still intact as I bask in blissful denial that we have all the time in the world.

I got into Nursing because it seemed like a practical career. What I did not expect was for it to fundamentally alter my perspective on life. I expected to learn how to observe a wound and read lab work. I expected the occasional heart-warming patient story or moment. I did not expect it to change how I fundamentally see the world and my relationships in it.

As I watch my children and husband open gifts on Christmas Day, I am reminded of those who cannot take their loved ones home. I am grateful for what I have in a way that I could not comprehend before I became a nurse. Deeply aware of what is too easily taken for granted. Of what can be lost in an instant.

For many, the holidays are a reminder to spend time with family and friends and to take time to be present with those around us. As nurses, we are reminded of this year-round. Each hand held in fear. Each shoulder touched in reassurance. Each face looking to us for answers, for comfort. Nursing may just be a job with a paycheck. But we take home more than money. We can’t help it. We are changed one shift, one patient at a time. And for that, I am forever grateful.  

Robin Thoen RN BN has been nursing since 2007. She has gained experience in a wide variety of settings including surgical oncology, trauma surgery, and rural medicine. She works and lives in Canada with her husband and two children. By writing about her experiences as a nurse she hopes to share with others the impact that being so intimately involved in the lives of patients has had on her.

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7,735 Posts

Specializes in retired LTC.

I think we've all had similar experiences. Thank you for helping us to remember.


4 Articles; 2,472 Posts

Specializes in New Critical care NP, Critical care, Med-surg, LTC.
3 hours ago, rthoenwrites said:

A patient to me, but to him the evolution of a person and relationship that had defined him so that he did not know himself without her.

The harder part of our jobs sometimes is helping the loved ones that will be left behind. Thank you for sharing your story!

Jordan Nacalaban, BSN, RN

4 Articles; 21 Posts

Specializes in MS,Cardiac,Post-Trauma Surgical,Ortho,PACU/Preop.

Your story had me crying while I watched my kids playing nearby. A reminder that patients and families impact the nurses and us to them one way or another. Each side forever changed. 

Thank you for sharing your story. 

Specializes in Ortho, CMSRN.

They do impact us... there are a few wives I remember to pray for around Christmas time, one, I cared for her husband and he passed around Christmas, another is a co-worker who lost her husband at the same time. It makes you grateful for your family ❤️

I have one that I heard from a patient. She was a sweet lady in her late 70s or early 80s with colon issues as well. Her daughters took diligent care of her and seemed to love her very much. They even helped with her ostomy. 

She told me that she had ovarian cancer as a teen. No one told her that getting rid of the cancer would render her unable to have children until her surgery was done. When she heard, she was devastated, as all she had ever wanted to be was a mother. She also didn't want her highschool sweetheart to be childless. She began to save her pain pills and hide them in the bedside table, planning to take them all at once and end her life. A housekeeper found them and alerted the nurse. Her nurse sat down with her and had a heart to heart and told her that losing her uterus does not change Gods plans for her life and that there was more than one way to be a mother. After she went home, she told her boyfriend that she would never have children and he didn't care. They eventually got married and both wanted to adopt. The mother of their first had two more that she wanted them to have. They were such a sweet family! Her story stuck with me about the power that we have as nurses to reach and encourage people at the lowest of the low and make a BIG difference in their lives. 

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