To live is to give! What a grand and noble ideal.  

It’s a slogan best suited to doctors, nurses, and other skilled healthcare workers. But this was not for me! I was going to be a research zoologist and study the pride life of lions (think Jane Goodall) and also work as a studio artist. These were my plans as I entered college. But they were not to be…

As life events unfolded, I needed to stay local and get a job right after graduation. I reached out to others for career ideas and took career tests. Each time, nursing came up. Hmm. I had worked a summer job in high school at a hospital, in the health information management (HIM) department, and read a medical journal on infectious disease at lunch. Sounds Interesting! Maybe that would work. Getting into an upper-level nursing school was academically competitive – just my style, back then. Great! Goodbye lions and hello library!

But the world of nursing was different to me from anything I had ever known. You know, study till midnight, clinicals, and wonder if you could ever learn it all. Things came together better for me working an ICU night shift as a student nurse, where the RNs taught me everything hands-on.  I worked with ventilators, chest tubes, peritoneal dialysis, you name it – they taught it. You know the “see one, do one” adage? But of course, they watched me. It was great hands-on learning, which I wish happened more today, before we threw our graduates away and expected them to function as experts (which, of course, they cannot be without practice). Knowledge plus practice makes a good base. But you cannot really teach compassion for mankind – can you? (It’s open for debate.)

But before I bore you, let me shock you. My independent senior study was “The Infection Control Nurse,” back in 1982. Yes, stop yawning, because it gets better. As a student, I had attended a lecture on a new disease presented by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers at the National Critical Care Conference in New Orleans. Of course, it was AIDS, which was then a syndrome found in men frequenting the bathhouses on the West Coast. They recounted symptoms, and if any hospitals found cases, they were to call the CDC. That was the beginning. We all shuddered.   

Next, I am a young BSN nurse running the infection control department at a community hospital, with strong support. But you cannot imagine the “backstage “stress from dealing with those first AIDS cases. It was as if the wall of invincibility for Americans had broken into fear and vulnerability. I saw cussing, fussing, community unrest; but also, clear-minded adaptive ideas, as we adopted universal precautions. This is when the first needle disposal boxes were hung on the walls in patient rooms.

My uncle, who was an ER doctor at the time, asked me if my class at school had taken an oath to treat the infectious patient, knowing that they might kill us by disease transmission. He had grown up back in the World War II era. I told him that it had been lightly mentioned, but no one really thought it was possible, because we had grown up thinking that American medicine was the best in the world. The known diseases to us just would not kill us. (Yes, I knew about Ebola back then, as an infection control nurse, but that was over on the other side of the world).   

Now, we have COVID-19, which is far worse than AIDS, as far as transmissibility and the world pandemic it is causing. Very brave people all around our globe are stepping up and fighting the good fight for each of their patients – some until death. Some live to serve again another day. I am blindsided by my own thoughts here. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” – but in this case, a new patient/friend. This, of course, is biblical, but I believe it remains true in any belief system. But is this not what we are doing daily in our lives?? We are called to serve others, and inadvertently, ourselves as well.

Several years after this, I left nursing for nine years and went home to assist my husband with his business, do a little art, raise my girls, and take a breather. I do not recommend such a long break to any nurse now. I took an RN refresher course at our regional medical center and started back into practice after this. Very few in that group survived even the first few months. It was hard – kind of like being a new grad all over again. The technology changes! I started back on a COU floor, and it seemed like all the patients were so sick! Every time an alarm bell sounded, I thought it was a code! After all, we had frequent codes back in the day. I had to learn that these really sick patients were more stable than I thought. I learned to adapt.

A couple years later, one patient in my group of six monitored heart floor patients was unusual for the floor. He had aggressively attempted suicide and was in four-point leather restraints. There was no sitter then. I treated him with dignity, asked him how he wanted to be called, and started asking about his life and how he got to this point with short conversations. He opened up to me, and by the second 12-hour shift I was Nurse Delilah, or “Miss Lila.” He told me that he came to be living in his car, had lost a job, but had a monthly check of some sort, but just tumbled into hopelessness. You know, without friends and contacts in life, things can get bleak. I told him about community support, as I was already interested in HHC, case management, and services. I felt comfortable with him, and him with me. I knew innately that he was not a danger to me, and I sensed that he was getting hope back. We did not have an inpatient psychiatric floor at the time, and most bad suicide cases cycled through the units before returning home.  

Anyway, we were talking and I had my back turned. He said, “ta-da!” When I turned around, he had one hand out of a restraint. He said, “I’m double-jointed, I’ve been able to do that all along!” He grinned and then we both started laughing at the same time. I said, “you put that hand back in there before you get us both in trouble!” I said it like scolding a child, and we laughed again! He went on to a homeless shelter, and he promised me he would try rebuilding his life again when he left. We both cried – I tried not to. Good nurses are not supposed to get that emotional, others say.

I never expected to give so much to my patients, physically or emotionally. But in giving, I found a reward for living. I hope you find that inner joy. I don’t tell my small tales to brag, because we all have stories to tell. My hope is that you find refreshment in your day! Your next patient may have a hidden talent too!

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