In the early ‘80’s I was absolutely convinced that the only thing standing between life and death was me: the trusty, capable and ever-vigilant bedside nurse in the critical care unit (CCU). I was like a sharp shooter with all the equipment – fearless and cocky, as only a rookie critical care nurse can be. People called us angels in the CCU because of the intensity of care and high-wire between life and death.
It was on a typically crazy day in the CCU that we admitted a 60-year-old, Mr. D., with an acute myocardial infarction. He was very sick: cardiogenic shock, on an intra-aortic balloon pump and ventilator. I remember him wiggling his toes at me and winking at me – as sick as he was. I could see a brown-eyed glittery look that told me, “If he makes it, he’s going to be a real pistol of a patient.” He had an adoring family – several children including a daughter who was finishing high school. His wife was steady, sturdy and unwavering. She was a true match for him with steely resolve to come through this assault.
After a few days, Mr. D. was well enough to be extubated and removed from the ventilator. He was recovering slowly and steadily when he unexpectedly had a cardiac arrest. I was at his side when he arrested and I was able to successfully apply the defibrillator paddles and reverse his ventricular arrhythmia. Afterward, the doctor asked Mr. D. what he remembered about the experience. Mr. D. replied that he thought he had died, but then he opened his eyes and saw me with those paddles and he knew he wasn’t in heaven and hoped he was not in hell! Some angel I turned out to be! We laughed a lot that day and for the many weeks of his long recovery.
I remember our chaplain saying to me, “How many people go home and say, “I saved a life today?” Thinking about that and, wrapped in my Teflon nurse shield, I laughed it off – just my job, don’t you know? But, I believe that day it dawned on me that mine was a profession of art and science bound together by reverence for life. I began to understand my work as a calling, not a job. And I started to know humility.
Several months later, Mr. D. sent me a handmade Christmas card of an angel that looked a lot like me except there were bolts of lightning all around me. Mr. D. turned out to be an accomplished artist! Over the years, I occasionally heard about Mr. D. and his family, until I left my position at the hospital and we lost touch.
Hospice comes into our lives
Flash forward more than 20 years and I am the CEO of a very different care environment, Rainbow Hospice in Chicago. Now I know that I have found the perfect blend of the art and science of nursing: end-of-life care. My calling has transformed into supporting and leading the nurses and other staff that provide tender, gentle care to people who are dying. Now, I am absolutely convinced that there is nothing standing between life and death. Death is a life experience. I have an intense desire to achieve the very best work environment for the amazing staff, and therefore, to influence the quality of care that they can provide to our patients, families and bereaved clients.
A call comes, and isn’t it one of Mr. D’s four daughters? She was a young nurse when first we met in the CCU. She reflects on the formative witnessing of the care her dad received and how that impacted her as a young nurse. I am deeply touched. She tells me about her parents: dad is now dying and needs hospice; mom is taking care of him at home – still unwavering in her resolve, but weary and alert to the needs she has for herself and her family. Another assault and she needs fortification.
I am struck by the fact that this family survived a sudden near-death, only now to experience a long decline from cardiac disease and other chronic illnesses. The daughter assures me that her dad made the best of every single day he had. Many times over the years he talked about his gift of time and how grateful he was to have been resuscitated. But now, he loves his home, his privacy, his view of Lake Michigan, his pets and he wants to die in his own bed. Mostly, he wants to be with his family, surrounded by the people and things he loves. He wants to hold the hand of his bride at the end.
Mr. D. tells his family that the last time he nearly died, I got in the way and he was so glad I did – he had so many more years of living left. But now, he hopes that I will help him feel safe and prepared for the death he is now ready to experience. He knows that it is the same Patty Ahern taking care of him in two very different circumstances and he is glad to know me again. Even though I do not visit him, I feel those glittery brown eyes upon me.
Coming Full Circle
Rainbow Hospice did admit Mr. D. and he lived for several months, always in his condo with his wife and family – looking out on the lake he loved – especially at sunrise. I had a few opportunities to talk with his family and I was able to stay in touch with him, vicariously, through the wonderful Rainbow nurse providing his care. I took such comfort in knowing the full circle of Mr. D’s life and the part that I played in it.
I was able to complete the circuit of my relationship with Mr. D. – at his funeral Mass. I surely felt him winking down on me, “This time was the right time,” and “Thank you for being the one who made all the difference the first time.”
April, 2014: The story goes on. My story about Mr. D. became the first chapter in “21 Peaceful Nurses,” a book about nurses and spirituality that is used at several nursing schools as a text book.
I am contacted through Facebook by one of Mr. D’s daughters. She has returned to nursing school to complete her BSN. You guessed it: in her coursework, this textbook is assigned. She finds herself reading the story of her dad and her family. We two have now become great Facebook buddies and are back in each other’s lives.
You never know how the story goes on and on. But you sure are glad it does.