the nurse

the nurse | the merry gourmet

During the first few days of my two-week hospital service stint in early September, I ran into my father’s nurse, a brown-haired woman in her 50s with a kind face and a gentle manner.

I was in a patient pod (a large space with six glass-doored patient rooms around a central nursing station) in the second floor Intermediate Medical Care unit. The IMC is a patient ward reserved for very sick patients who aren’t quite sick enough to need care in the intensive care unit but who need more intensive monitoring than on a regular floor.

I was there to see a patient, an older man who had been just diagnosed with a devastating and advanced cancer. I had not met the man yet; this would be the first time. I was there to tell him about his cancer. I was there to tell him exactly how bad his diagnosis was, and how short he was likely to live.

I had not been in the IMC since the end of February, when my father was a patient in that very pod, and when my family was on the receiving end of the bad news. I was fully aware of this fact, and I’d been trying to suppress the emotions that kept trying to surface ever since those automatic double doors to the IMC swung open to allow me entrance.

My father’s nurse stepped out of a patient’s room. We saw each other in that same moment, and I saw recognition on her face. She smiled, and then her eyebrows furrowed and her smile faltered as she recalled why she knew me.

She had been my father’s nurse on the morning I recognized that he had had a stroke and called it to her attention. She was there when the team of neurologists came to sugar coat his prognosis, only answering the hard questions after I insisted. She was there when the nurse from Hospice came to meet with us. She was there when he was wheeled out of the unit on a spindly stretcher, arms strapped in under a thin white sheet, discharged to the Hospice inpatient center.

“How are you?” she asked, moving closer to give me a hug. She smelled clean, of shampoo. “How is your mom?”

“Oh, I’m good. We’re fine,” I said, my heart in my throat. My eyes were suddenly wet as I was overwhelmed with emotions and memories.

My father in that hospital bed, gesturing to me with his right hand – the only one that worked – but unable to speak.

My mother and I sitting quietly in my father’s darkened room, watching the beeping monitor above his bed, hoping it would reveal something, anything, that could give us comfort.

The cardinal that fluttered at his window, seemingly trying to get in, as though it needed to be with us. As though it needed to tell me something.

We embraced for a long minute. She could sense that I needed it. When I pulled back, I wiped the tears from my eyes with the back of my hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really okay. I’ll be fine.” She looked doubtful.

I took a moment to compose myself, took some deep breaths and tried to remember why I was there. The nurse moved away, resuming work at the desk in the center of the room. I could tell that she wasn’t sure if she should say more or give me space.

I would see her again, several times, over the course of those first two weeks in September. That first time was the hardest, as I should have expected it to be. It was another in a series of firsts, after all – like that first Father’s Day without him – and I had been caught off guard. Later, his nurse and I would be able to smile at each other, to say hello without my sadness overshadowing the moment. It would become easier to be there, in that space where my father became lost to me forever.

“I’m good,” I said again, mostly to myself. I shook my head, trying to shake off those intruding memories that had come at the wrong time.

I tugged the sleeves and hem of my white coat, though it did not need straightening. I smoothed my hair, inhaled, and then exhaled. I squeezed a dollop of hand sanitizer gel into my hands and rubbed them together vigorously, as if trying to rid myself of more than just potential germs. Then I entered my patient’s room, a room opposite from the room that had been my father’s.

The lights were dim and the monitor above his bed spoke its own language of digital beeps. The man looked up at me from his bed with curiosity and hope. Inside, I cringed.

“Hello,” I said. “I’m Dr. Markham.”

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15 Responses to “the nurse”

  1. Gail — October 3, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    This is just one of the reasons why I love you. xoxoxo

  2. Maria Raynal — October 3, 2014 @ 11:22 am

    Me too. That inevitable intersection where life, death, hope and heartbreak collide … it sneaks up on us in so many ways.

  3. Cookin Canuck — October 3, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    You took me by surprise with this, MJ, and I’m having difficulties fighting back the tears. Thank you for sharing your emotions in such a raw, honest way. I can imagine that your own experiences make you even better at your job. That man is very lucky to have you as his doctor.

  4. Carolyn — October 3, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    I was going to say pretty much exactly what Dara said — about the tears, the honesty, the way that living your life fully can only make you better and better at your job. Instead I”ll just say: you’re wonderful. xx

  5. Paula — October 3, 2014 @ 11:42 am

    For many, it is hard to put words to our grief. I have so much respect and admiration for you and for your ability to finds words that so eloquently and meaningfully convey what you are feeling. Your writing is intensely beautiful, much like your spirit I’m sure.

  6. Susan - ofeverymoment — October 3, 2014 @ 11:53 am

    As a nurse, it warms my heart to read of such compassion by a person in my profession. As a caregiver who has lost a special person when being cared for in a hospital, I understand how hard it was for you to enter that IMC.
    Your father’s illness gave you insight that cannot be learned in medical school, and it is his legacy to all your patients. Thank you for writing this beautiful piece.

  7. Sabrina Modelle — October 3, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    MJ,
    You are pretty freaking amazing. That is all.
    X
    Sabrina

  8. Liz Larkin — October 3, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    I love your writing, MJ. it’s heartfelt, and true, and so lovely.

  9. Janis — October 3, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

    you are such a good writer.

  10. Mimi — October 3, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    I just wish there were more female doctors. A beautiful post.

  11. cherie — October 3, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

    You are so compassionate because you are so aware of your OWN feelings. No matter the outcome, you are a blessing to your patients. I am very grateful to know there are doctors like you in the world.

    I’m typing through tears, wishing I could give you a hug myself. Yet another reminder that everyone is struggling.

  12. Liz @ The Lemon Bowl — October 3, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

    Youe strength and vulnerability is such an inspiration. Xoxo

  13. Rachel — October 5, 2014 @ 8:00 am

    You are incredible. Patients are lucky to have you as their physician.
    Know this was hard.

  14. Laura — October 8, 2014 @ 9:05 pm

    So heartfelt. Beautiful. Thank you.

  15. Mallory+@forkvsspoon — October 14, 2014 @ 10:32 am

    You are amazing. I have no other words. This post, like so many others of yours, has left me in awe. Thank you for being so vulnerable.

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