In Which I Leave the Bedside


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.

Or not.

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.


  1. says

    Wow too. I’ve worked in many hospital settings–as a social worker and a caseworker and I admire nurses more than anyone there. You did your job and saved a life despite what you might think.
    terri tiffany recently posted..A decision

    • Sandra says

      You know, Terri, I never found out what ultimately happened with her. I’ve always wondered. Thanks.

    • Sandra says

      That’s what we always have to lean into, isn’t it Karin. Soon I’ll have to write about this “faultitis syndrome” I have. :)

  2. says

    I agree with Terri, you did your best. Much like parenting, we can focus on the times our human weakness showed through, and that is when we need grace not just from God, but from ourselves to ourselves. I think you’re a hero.

    • Sandra says

      Ah yes, Elizabeth. The parenting thing. Another battleground when it comes to fault. How we need to cling to His grace.

      Thank you so much, friend.

  3. says

    Oh, Sandra, this is why my sweet, sweet daughter, who just wants to help, abandoned the idea of nursing. It was attractive to her because she wants to serve and be part of a person’s healing. But the thought of being in that situation terrifies her.

    She’s switched her interest to computer science and is planning to major it in when she enrolls in college in fall 2013.

    And yet I keep thinking the world needs people willing to take that risk, the risk of holding a life in one’s hands–the world needs Sandras to sit by the bedside and serve, faithfully, lovingly, even if it means the fear of dealing with an unexpected emergency.

    May you find relief, letting the story out that has haunted you. You did the work of a nurse. You kept her alive when things malfunctioned all around you. Bless you, for serving. And bless you, for telling your story.
    Ann Kroeker recently posted..Curiosity Journal: May 9, 2012

    • Sandra says

      Oh Ann. Isn’t it awful the hold that fear can have? I did love the operating room. My husband used to say nurses were never happy unless they were elbow deep in blood. It was always comforting to have a doctor right there if something went awry, and most (not all) patients left in better shape than when they came in. Now I’d be afraid to go back for fear of all the bloodborne diseases. We never thought much about that back then. If we stabbed ourselves with a needle or scalpel, we just double gloved so we didn’t contaminate the patient. 😉

      Thanks so much for lifting me up.

  4. says

    I understand this, Sandra. I really do. I know that feeling – wondering if I’d done something wrong or failed to do something right. It’s a heavy burden to walk around with, and the enemy delights in wanting us to carry it. I let my license go after my mama died. I knew there was no way I’d put myself through that stress again. Much love to you, brave friend.
    Patricia @ Pollywog Creek recently posted..If you feed them…

    • Sandra says

      I still keep my license–though I’m late renewing and need to do it before the end of the month or lose it. I got behind with CEs over the last months. I keep it just in case I get to go immunize in some poverty-stricken region.

      I’m thinking so many nurses carry thoughts like this.

      Love coming back to you. And I can’t think of anything better than sitting out in the yard with dueling cameras. :)

  5. says

    Oh Sandy, I think nursing who be horrifying to me for this very reason. You have captured all the emotion and the details here so vividly. I am loving your reflections on nursing this week. Nurses really do change the world for so many. Blessings!
    Charity Singleton recently posted..The Peace of Wild Things

    • Sandra says

      Thanks so much, Charity. Going back to a hospital would be horrifying now, and I’d really be dangerous. The equipment is so…technical. And I’m not. 😉

  6. says

    You had such great presence of mind, and I think you handled the situation with great skill Sandy. Having said that, I completely understand why you left. I know I couldn’t manage under that kind of constant stress.
    I spent a few days in ICU following a back surgery and have undying admiration for those nurses. They were quite literally like ministering angels.
    Linda recently posted..Such Love

    • Sandra says

      This was 40+ years ago, Linda. Many details are hazy. And yet I can remember the room, how the bed was situated, where I stood to breathe, where I stood at the crash cart. I’ve been thinking about it more this week and don’t think I’d realized what a defining moment it was for me.

  7. says

    Sandy, I’d want someone like you taking care of me. Someone who’s human and knows it.

    Thanks for reaching deep to pull this one out.
    Lyla Lindquist recently posted..Lament

    • Sandra says

      :) Love having sisters like you to walk with, Lyla.

      Do you think Julia would approve?

    • Sandra says

      There are horrors of one variety or another everywhere, aren’t there Brandee? And oh the lessons we learn.

    • Sandra says

      I often wonder how things might have been different. But…when I left, I took a job in an OB/GYN office. That’s where I met my husband. We were married before the year was out. 😉

    • Sandra says

      I can just imagine, Brian. My dad started the ambulance corps in our town, and he still tells stories about his experiences–like delivering a baby. That would have freaked me out, I think. I don’t know that he’s left anything out–at least that he can remember. Different how different things affect different people, right?

      My husband thinks I should be trained on an emergency defibrillator for church. I’m nervous about it.

  8. says

    Yep…I know what you are talking about. I did homecare and was all alone and had some mighty close calls. Nursing way over-trumps The Deadliest Catch on stressful jobs. I started teaching caregiver several years ago and I haven’t been back either. It is just so stressful. When I have a bad day teaching caregivers the fundamental skills of nursing, I saw to myself, well…nobody died.
    I loved this, it is real life for nurses.
    Gayle recently posted..Mothering Love

    • Sandra says

      It’s easy to complain about nurses or other medical professionals, but we tend to forget sometimes that they are all human.

      A good day is when nobody died. Sigh.

  9. Connie@raise your eyes says

    Sandy, I’m searching here, but I do not see maliciousness. I do not see intent to harm. I do not see gross incompetence.I do not see abandonment when the situation got tough.

    What I do see is a skilled caregiver who improvised quickly with her own mouth to save a woman’s life; but has been haunted by the enemy with thoughts that she should have done more.
    Connie@raise your eyes recently posted..Debt of love

  10. Diane BAiley says

    My husband and I have both been in the medical field. We both have been sued. I am so sorry you have to go through this. Keep you chin up. I will pray for you.

    • Sandra says

      This was 40-plus years ago, Diane, so it’s a memory now. Something I think about sometimes but no longer worry about. I hate that you’ve experienced that. It’s hard to always have that possibility hanging over you when you’re trying to give good care.

  11. says

    i’m a retired midwife…two lives in my hands so many times over the years- i quit a thousand times. i still carry those thoughts…’what if i had done something different…’ it goes with the territory. and every time we tell a story, it brings healing. blessings to you.

    • Sandra says

      A midwife. Wow. Such a mix of stress and fear and accomplishment and joy, I would think.

      The second thoughts go with the territory. So true.

  12. jennifer says

    Our life is full of unexpected things and we are able to deal it in order to survive, this is just a way of developing our self to become a great person… XOXo
    jennifer recently posted..How I ranked in 4 weeks

  13. says

    i feel for you. life throws us into dfficult times because god is testing our strength. you will come out of this a stronger person. sending you warm wishes.
    kamana recently posted..addictive

  14. Sharon O says

    That would be horrible… I am not and never will be a fan of anything medical. The only time I did ok was when my grand daughter was in Nicu. I had to visit her, tubes and all. I just cannot deal with medical things some people are called to do that, I am not. ( a friday confession)

    • Sandra says

      Sweet baby. They are so fragile and helpless. How some of these children are able to survive and thrive these days. Nothing short of miraculous.

  15. says

    I am breathing through your story. Breathing and wishing I could wipe away your fears, clear the clinging tendrils of sorrow and regret.

    You did your best. You give enough. You do enough. You are enough.

    Blessings my beautiful friend.
    Louise G recently posted..Judgments hurt

    • Sandra says

      I don’t worry so much as wonder any more, Louise. And not very often at that. But it was healing to revisit this story and see how it seems to have colored my path and perspective.

      If I could reach through this screen and hug you…

  16. says

    Hi Sandra!

    I jumped over from Imperfect Prose and immediately noticed two things: 1. You have a Frederick Buechner quote on your wall. (We’re already besties. 😉 2. You’re from Michigan! Me too! I grew up in Traverse City, where do live?

    Nice to “meet” you. :)


  17. says

    Oh my, Sandy. This series on nursing has been so rich. And this – wow. I SO get leaving the bedside after such an experience. And then it led to marriage and a different kind of life. Thank you for doing the work, for sharing the story, for being you – wise, caring, faithful you…40 years ago and right this minute.
    diana recently posted..Beauty in the Backyard