Back in my eighth-grade study hall, while reading Anne Snow, Mountain Nurse, my heart was thumping so loudly, I felt certain my classmates could hear it. Riding a horse through the mountain passes of Virginia, Anne Snow ministered to poor people and their families in their rundown cabins as a community health nurse. I could just see her bringing healing and consolation to those families. Staring out into that sunny March afternoon in 1959, I visualized myself on that horse, in those mountains, with the sun breaking through the trees as I found my way to those cabins. I would reach out to wipe a beady brow or console a crying baby while an anxious mother looked on. I soaked up every word, all the time seeing myself being Anne Snow. I could hardly wait to tell my best friend, June.
Jolted by the bell, I shot out of my seat and scurried to my locker, looking for June. By the time I ran into my friend Pat, I was panting.
“Pat, I’m soooo excited,” I said as I tried to catch my breath. “I want to be a nurse!”
The bell rang again as we hurried to our next class, down the stairs and around the corner, cradling books and papers and shouldering others rushing by. My pencil case fell , scattering my pencils across all four corners of the landing.
“You know what you want to do for the rest of your life? I don’t even know what I’m doing this weekend! Great!” she shouted while turning to watch me pick up my pencils. She waved in parting at the bottom of the stairs.
“Yes! Yes, I do! I replied whilepicking up my pencils.
Was that weird? Here I was 13 years old, and I already knew deep in my heart what I wanted.
Eight years later, in 1967, I received my diploma as a registered nurse from St Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing in Elmira, New York, thus starting a journey that would fulfill that dream from my eighth-grade study hall musings. I never rode that horse up those mountains, but I have traveled through many rewarding, challenging encounters.
One patient whom I encountered as a new nurse stands out in my mind as remarkable.
The dimly lit lamp cast a shadow of itself on the wall as I approached my silent patient who had curled up in a fetal position, facing the stark white wall. The sadness was palpable. That 29-year-old-man was dying of colon cancer, his time on this earth now measured in days, maybe hours. I hesitated at the door to ponder how a young man only five years older than me could be dying in that bed, his scared wife immersed in her own grief in the waiting room. What in the world could I say or do beyond my routine nursing duties? It was easy to take a blood pressure or administer a medication, but that young man was dying, and I was his nurse. Twinges of guilt gnawed at me as I pondered my approach. Not too long ago, this young man was leading a normal life; going to work and coming home to play with his kids. I visualized him dancing at his wedding, laughing and hugging his wife. I thought of my own normal life and how I would leave work and return to a daily routine of doing laundry and going grocery shopping. Maybe I’d go for a walk or visit my friend Maureen, and we’d talk about what we were going to wear to the party, or we’d catch up on the latest gossip. All those things that seemed so important a few hours ago now seemed so trivial and shallow in light of his terminal illness.
As I walked to his bedside, I heard his slow, rhythmic breathing. His dinner tray lay untouched on his bedside stand.
“Mr. Jacobs, I’ll be your nurse this evening. My name is Kathy,” I said.
Slowly nodding in response, he opened his eyes and turned toward me as I stood by his bed. His hair was thick and black, but his skin, by now, was yellow from the liver damage. He must have been a very handsome man during his healthy days.
Such dark, sad eyes.
“Is there anything you need right now?” As my words echoed in my own ears, I realized that they sounded trite.
He hesitated, then said, “My wife…she’s in the waiting room. She’s having a real hard time.” His eyes welled up with tears.
I sat by his bed and touched his arm in response. We sat in silence for a few moments,
“Do you want me to bring her in so you can have some time together?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t know what I’ll say to her.”
“Hard to find the words at a time like this?”
”Yeah,” he replied, nodding his head.
“Why don’t you just tell her what you are feeling?”
He slowly nodded once in response.
“I’ll go get her,” I said. I stood up to leave, not having any idea what I would say.
As I walked into the waiting room, I saw his pretty young wife sitting quietly, staring blankly out the window. It was dark, and the raindrops glistened as they tapped in rapid succession against the pane. Her blonde page-boy hair was neatly combed. She was trying so hard to hold it all together.
“Mrs. Jacobs, my name is Kathy. I’m your husband’s nurse,” I said, reaching out my hand to her.
She put her head in her hands and began sobbing. “I can’t lose him. We have two young children at home. I just don’t know what I’m going to do without him,” she said. Streaks of mascara formed tracks on her cheeks.
I sat down next to her while she cried, knowing I could not tell her it would be all right, like I wanted to be able to tell her. So I just listened.
After a few minutes, she stopped crying, wiped her face and tried to catch her breath.
“Do you want to come see your husband now? I will go in with you,” I said.
She nodded as she stood up, straightening her red pleated plaid skirt and white pullover.
As we paused in the waiting room doorway, I took her hand and looked directly into her soft blue eyes. “It’s OK to tell your husband how you feel, to say whatever you need to say to him.”
We walked slowly to his room.
“Mr. Jacobs, your wife is here,” I announced from his doorway.
He was still in a fetal position facing the wall, so I guided her over to the other side of the bed to face him.
“You two have some time together to tell each other whatever you need to,” I said.
I left the room and said a silent prayer that they would say what they needed to say to one another. I had to catch up with the rest of my assignment—picking up trays, doing blood pressures and giving medications.
After about 20 minutes, when I went to Mr. Jacobs’ room to check on him, his wife was sitting on his bed, holding his hand in hers. They were both smiling.
She stood up, gave him a kiss and said she was ready to leave.
“It was good. Thank you for helping me walk into that room,” she said, hugging me as my eyes welled up with tears.
Such sacred ground.
The privilege of helping this young couple share and smile through their pain left me in awe. I could hear my own heart beating as I lingered until she reached the elevator. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I took a deep breath, humbled and changed by this encounter. Taking my assignment out of my pocket, I reviewed the list of tasks and started walking toward Room 332 to give my next patient a backrub, very aware that no textbook or classroom could ever touch me like that.
It would be the first of many humbling and profound moments I would share with people in my care.
It turned out that nursing became my greatest friend and ally throughout many challenges in my life. Through divorces, single parenting and illness, I could always count on my career. I have been privileged to have experienced so many precious moments with people in their hour of greatest need. Like the 50-year-old man who came into the emergency room one evening during my shift.
“Crushing chest pain of three hours duration. No known heart history,” the EMT reported while whisking the ambulance stretcher into the trauma room.
As I helped pull the man onto our stretcher, his wide eyes and ashen, sweaty brow left no doubt as to the urgency of the situation. We buzzed around him like a swarm of bees, hooking him to the monitor, starting an IV, rattling off questions. In the midst of all the fury, I noticed his eyes searching all around.
“Mr. Michaels, we’re giving you some medication in your veins to help the pain” I said, leaning closer to the stretcher.
“Where’s Rachel? I need to see Rachel. Please go get her,” he pleaded, his salt and pepper hair now drenched from the sweat. He had a look of terror in his eyes.
Sensing the desperation in his plea, I briefly left the room to get Rachel while my co-workers continued in their frenzied attempt to save his life.
A thin, scared twelve-year-old girl with long brown hair and big brown eyes responded when I called for Rachel. She was standing around the corner by herself.
“Rachel, your Dad wants to talk with you. Let’s go and see him,” I said, bending down to put my hands on her shoulders. I wanted to pick her up and hold her at that moment. She was so frail and so scared.
“Is my Daddy going to be OK?” she asked, looking up at me with a sense that she knew he wasn’t.
“We’re doing everything we can, Rachel. Come with me.”
I guided her through the maze of IV tubing, monitor wires, medical orders and staff rushing by to the head of her father’s bed.
He reached out his arm and pulled her head next to him, giving her a kiss on her cheek. “Take good care of your Mother, Rachel. Daddy loves you very much,” he said.
“I love you, too, Daddy.” She said, sobbing.
He nodded to me like it was time to leave.
When I returned to the room, the staff was resuscitating him. He had gone into full cardiac arrest right after he spoke with his daughter. He was pronounce dead soon after.
Precious moments and sacred ground.
After being a staff nurse for a few years, I went on to get my bachelor’s degree, then my master’s degree in nursing, which led me to administrative and teaching jobs. But I always yearned for direct contact with patients and their families. In 1996, I became a family nurse practitioner at the age of fifty. That was also the year I was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, providing me with a view from the other side as a patient. I experienced first-hand the difference nursing makes and am blessed to have survived cancer and been given another chance to make a difference as a nurse practitioner.
I have spent so many precious moments , whether it be with a dying patient or a family member looking for advice and support, and that has left me feeling blessed and privileged. But I also have been consoled by my patients.
I was working as a nurse practitioner in an urgent-care center when my son, Brian, relapsed after two years of sobriety. His girlfriend, Kim, called me at work. It was 4:30 p.m., and I was finishing my charting in my office.
“Kathy, there is a Kim Clark on the phone for you,” my co-worker Nancy announced from the hallway.
I looked at her with dread and walked to the phone at the nurse’s station, saying a silent prayer all the way down the hall. “Dear Lord, give me strength. This can’t be good.”
Reaching for the phone in slow motion, I put the receiver to my ear and sat down.
“Brian started drinking, and I don’t know where he is,” Kim sobbed.
Kim had met Brian when he was sober two years prior to this. Although he had shared his alcohol problem with her right from the start, she had never experienced his drinking behavior. Until now.
My silence, though momentary, was heavy with sorrow. Years of Alanon had prepared me for these relapses, but I never was able to combat my fears that he might die. I thought of all the times I spent in Alanon meetings learning how to deal with loving and letting go of an alcoholic son. But this was all new to Kim.
“What happened?” I asked, not really wanting to know. I had just spoken with him a week ago, and he sounded fine. But that’s how it was in the past, so I knew relapse was always just around the corner, depending on Brian’s choices.
“I guess he’s been drinking since Thanksgiving and I didn’t know it. He’s acting so weird and I can’t believe he’s gone,” Kim replied.
“Kim, I know this must be very hard for you. Please hear me out. Brian is an alcoholic, and he needs to stop drinking. You can’t make him do it. “
“I’m so scared. “She cried then tried to catch her breath, “What if he dies?”
Knowing that it would get worse before it got better, if he survived the relapse, I attempted my answer. “Kim, we did not cause Brian to drink, nor can we control his decisions. You must learn to take care of yourself. Can you get to an Alanon meeting today?”
“Maybe, but I’m worried about him.”
“I am too, Kim. All we can do at this point is pray and not support his drinking.”
It was the Christmas season, 2006, and I was back to living one day a time. Several weeks went by with sporadic, frantic phone calls from Kim. It seemed that with each call, my sense of hope plummeted a little further. At one point, Brian was missing for days, and it was during that span that I went to work with my deepest sense of hopelessness. So I prayed that day that the Lord would give me my hope back. That’s all I wanted, for without it, I didn’t have the strength to move forward. Somehow, I was able to function at work, to go through all the motions, but emotionally I was stuck, unable to socialize with my co-workers or get to know my patients beyond their chief complaints, literally placing one foot in front of the other and focusing on the diagnosis and treatment of my patients. I felt like I was living in the moment, fearful of moving beyond that point. I hardly had the strength to even pray.
“Lord, just give me my hope back,” I prayed silently before going to see my next patient.
There he was, a clean-shaven serious young man named James.
The 35-year-old man came to Urgent Care for a sore throat. Simple enough. This young man would never have any idea that he would be an answer to a mother’s prayer and provide me with consolation.
“My throat’s been real sore for the past few days and I’m feelin’awful,” he reported.
After taking the customary history and doing a physical exam, I cultured his throat to rule out streptococcal tonsillitis.
Returning with the culture results, I said, “Looks like strep throat to me, so it’s a good thing you came in today.”
Shaking his head, he told me it was the worst sore throat he’d ever had.
“Do you want any pain medication?” I asked.
Stretching out his arms and fanning out his fingers in a “Whoa!” position, he shook his head. “Oh, no, I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I don’t want to take any pain medications,” he said.
“Really? Tell me your story,” I said, putting my pen down and leaning my chin on my hand to listen.
Without hesitation, he began, “I started drinking when I was twelve, then really got into it by the time I was sixteen.” I instantly saw the parallel with Brian’s story.
He continued to share the details of not only his heavy drinking but also the many losses he had experienced as a result: his job, his car, his wife, his family, his friends, and a car accident that almost cost him his life.
“So, what made you decide to quit?” I asked.
”When my wife kicked me out, when she stopped putting up with my drinkin’,” he replied. “I had to decide for myself. Nobody can do it for ya. And I go to AA. That’s my lifeline.”
“Thanks for sharing your story with me, James. You’re doing the hard work.”
“I’m just doin’ what I have to do, one day at a time.”
“Here’s your prescription for an antibiotic,” I said. “Hope you feel better.”
He, the patient, had been the one to minister to me, the nurse practitioner.
“Thank you Lord, for bringing me James,” I prayed silently. “By Your grace and mercy, my hope has returned and I can continue to move forward.”
My renewed sense of hope carried me on to the next patient. I felt lighter. I was on sacred ground again, and a power much greater than myself was leading the way.
It was as if God reached down and touched my thirteen-year old heart that day in my eighth-grade classroom when I was reading Anne Snow,Mountain Nurse. The excitement I felt turned out to be just a glimpse of what treasures would lie ahead for me as I ministered to my patients and they ,in turn, ministered to me. I am so glad I listened
Kathy, I always enjoy the way you write..”show, do not tell” must be the mantra you follow so religiously. You learned a lot through your career. You also helped so many sick individuals and got enriched joy in your life. I can relate your stories very well. You got to perceive what your heart wanted. I was not so lucky. However, taking genuine care of my patients, seeing the newly-born babies recognising my voice, seeing the joy on the new parents, husbands and kids going through challenges, kept me focussed and took my mind off of my miserable, painfully sad life. All the best, smita.