I wouldn’t say I’ve had a lot of revelations in my professional life, but there is one that still affects me emotionally to this day, and it’s about nurses.
I had been a PICU doctor for a number of years, and I was rounding on all the patients in the PICU with the rest of the team. The background sounds consisted of the usual beeps, alarms, and humming from the patient’s monitors and machines. I believe it was winter, and the unit was full (of course). The kids in the PICU ranged in diagnoses from sepsis (blood infection), apnea (stopped breathing), suicide attempt, pneumonia, etc. to a number of other problems.
One patient, “John,” was a 16-year-old car accident victim who had suffered a severe brain injury and multiple broken bones. He had previously been a healthy, strong “macho man.” He was comatose and on a ventilator. He had multiple IVs and drugs to keep his blood pressure up, had a feeding tube in his nose, a catheter in his bladder, and a drain in his skull to decrease the pressure in his brain as a result of swelling.
His muscular appearance contrasted with the fact that he was wearing a brief (diaper), as he had no control over his own bodily functions.
I was just outside his room, as our team was discussing another patient. The nurse from John’s room came out to ask me a number of questions that couldn’t wait. She stood in the doorway of his room as she spoke to me, wearing her scrubs and tennis shoes, a mask and rubber gloves. She, in a very highly intelligent and summarized manner, updated me on John’s most serious and pressing problems, and her suggestions to help him. After our brief conversation, she said, “Sorry, but I have to get back to what I was doing.” I realized that she had been right in the middle of cleaning up this young man’s large bowel movement.
I watched her gently care for him, and listened to her soothingly reassure him that everything was going to be all right. I was overwhelmingly overcome with deep admiration and respect.
Nursing does not teach one to become compassionate, humble and generous of spirit. Those that already possess those characteristics choose to become nurses.
Nurses are the core of medicine. They are the compassion of the art. Nurses are the reason we doctors look good.
Michael D. Pappas is a pediatrician and can be reached at Children’s Intensive Caring.