I’m twenty years old, working as a G.N. (graduate nurse), still waiting to find out if I passed my boards.
It’s 3 p.m., and I come on duty to discover I’m in charge of all the intensive care patients. I have two regularly-scheduled nurse’s aides and one practical nurse who’s never worked on this unit.
I make assignments and give myself two patients–a man still recovering from open-heart surgery and a burned toddler who needs frequent dressing changes. I pass all the medications and later in the evening admit a new patient–from whom I also draw blood for labs.
I work an hour-and-a-half overtime and don’t eat or go to the bathroom. I don’t have time to hold a hand or stroke a cheek or chat a moment.
Not long after, I quit.
I register for college classes and sign on as a special duty nurse at a neighboring hospital. I’ll work one-on-one. The hospital is excited because of my ICU experience. I’m excited because I’ll finally have time to spend with my patients. To hold a hand, stroke a cheek, and chat a moment. Or more.
I’m also excited because when they call, I can say “no” if I have enough rent money on hand.
Some patients require major care. Some just need a “babysitter,” and I can study at the bedside.
One evening I’m assigned to Louise. She is on what we used to call a respirator (Bird) and requires regular tracheostomy care. I take report, read her chart, do my assessment, and settle in. I’ll be here for the next eight hours. Someone may relieve me for dinner.
Towards the end of my shift, I do another assessment, empty her Foley bag, and prepare for a final suction. I remove the respirator and insert a catheter into her trach tube to clear secretions for the last time before my replacement arrives.
I watch in horror as her eyes widen. And her face color turns from peaches-and-cream to cherry to blueberry to blackberry.
I drop the catheter and reattach the Bird.
But the Bird is dead.
Not a peep.
It. Won’t. Work.
I press the call button and yell out the door. “I need help!”
I reach for the Ambu bag.
It’s gone. Missing. AWOL.
So I do the only thing I know to do.
I put lips directly to trach tube and blow.
The room’s filled with people now, and I’m manning the crash cart, watching the time and drawing up medications until, finally, Louise is stable, and the room clears, and it’s past time for me to go home.
Louise’s family gathers around me and thanks me over and over.
And I nod, try to smile, give a hug, and think, “I nearly killed your mom, your wife, and you’re thanking me?”
Not that anyone has accused me. Not that one word has been breathed to that effect.
But this is me. The responsible one.
And I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve done something wrong.
That this incident is all my fault.
Someone will figure it out soon.
I wait (for years) to learn I’m being sued.
It never happens.
But I say “no” more often when the hospital calls.
And I apply for a new job. One where I won’t face emergencies. One where there is always a doctor by my side.
I work in offices, in the operating room, in public health.
And I never go back to the bedside.
Have you thanked a nurse lately?
National Nurses Week
May 6-12, 2012
Spilling these hazy crumbs of memory with sweet Em today.