If you went to go to a museum in New York City and saw a live heart encased in glass, still pumping and pulsating — it would be my heart, shredded into a thousand pieces all in disarray. But it still would be pulsating. This describes my life as a nurse.
Nursing was a vacuum that sucked me dry and left me dangling with nothing more to give. Three years left until retirement, and I count the days.
I wanted to be a journalist for the New York Times or become a teacher. I was so excited to go away to college, but I should have known better.
Dad was an IBM executive but eventually drowned himself with alcohol. My mother was a true “Mommie dearest” who exhibited no warmth to us, her three kids. She neglected us, and we were essentially on our own.
Mom ruled with an iron fist. Was she miserable because dad drank and had many affairs? Or was it her newborn son who died three days later after he was born? She saw his stark black hair, but they didn’t let her cuddle her dead baby. He was buried in a massive grave along with several unnamed dead babies.
I had already seen JFK assassinated on our black-and-white TV. I was in second grade. Then came the other cruel realities in life: Nixon resigning after the big Watergate scandal. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, RFK, Medgar Evers — all gunned down in our America. When I graduated from Catholic school, I became aware that our bishop ran off with his secretary.
So I grew up knowing that life was not full of happiness. That it was full of sadness and hate and cruelty and darkness.
And beyond the dreams of escaping our large house to go away to college, I was stopped dead in my tracts. Mommie dearest said I would not go away to college, I would go to a local college and become a nurse. And from that moment, my life was dictated into the world of nursing.
I first became an LPN. I couldn’t concentrate in nursing school for my RN, and so I failed. I was always a failure — dumb and stupid and fat. Dad yelled at me when I dropped out and screamed: “You’re a failure, nothing but a failure.” I climbed through LPN school and graduated. Mom and dad took me out to eat for graduation. Mom announced that if I had become an RN, I would have been sent on a cruise. Instead, I got filet mignon. Years later, when I did get my RN, my parents were a “no show” for my graduation.
It seemed that my career in nursing was much like the life I had already led. My first job as an LPN was on psychiatry. And within two years, I saw how people did not get better with their mental illness. It was theirs to keep forever. My stories are forever, but the worst story on psychiatry was searching for a missing 50-year-old female patient on our unit. We searched everywhere until we found an isolated bathroom locked. The male techs plowed down the door, and there she was. Her jugular had been chiseled down and exposed. She was crying as blood dripped down her neck. Starring in the mirror, she couldn’t take the final cut. One more slice of her exposed jugular, and she would have been dead. I was 22 years old.
After several years, I began working on my RN. And I landed a job in a small southern town in the ED. I had lots of energy, and I loved the smorgasbord of the ED. Gunshot wounds, stab wounds, heart attacks, respiratory arrests, delivering babies.
But the worst: That 6-year-old girl brought into the ED. Eyes hollow and black as coal. Catatonic. She did not move. She had just been sexually assaulted by her momma’s boyfriend. To this day, I am still haunted by this little girl’s eyes. This little girl who had the magic of being young and happy, taken away from her forever.
I graduated to the ICU with my RN in hand. And that’s what became my true love. I loved the multi-system organ failure. I loved putting the puzzle pieces together. I loved being dynamic and energetic and attempting to save lives and problem solve and critically think. Thirty-plus years in ICUs and surgical trauma ICUs, and I considered myself a good nurse. I loved what I did.
But after 30 years in ICU, it became apparent that the general public had decided that their loved ones would live forever. With these ventilators and cardiac drugs and dialysis and balloon pumps and extracorporeal organ support (ECOS) and code cools and code blues and code strokes — everyone was going to live forever. Even the 92-year-old man who was in the ICU in a fetal position with brain stem damage was going to live forever as his daughter insisted on him being a full code.
And so we did. Full code, CPR, ribs crunching, daughter watching, doctors begging the family to let us stop And they refused. And we kept assaulting his body until his straight line on the EKG monitor announced for another 15 minutes that he was dead. Dead, despite compressions, despite code meds.
Assault. Disrespect. Denial.
And my heart grew tired and cold.
The bullies came to our unit. They were young and bright and “knew everything.” They didn’t have the experience or the wisdom that we had. But they carried disrespect for others. And their failure to pay attention and learn and critically think did not become a priority. And suddenly we thrust into: Where’s your hearing aid? Where’s your walker? You’re not retired yet?
I gave it my all until I couldn’t give anymore. Three years left, and I decided to go back to behavioral health. And I know I can’t heal them or cure them. I give meds to the psychotics and schizophrenics. And that’s OK with me.
Because at least now, I don’t have to pound on their chest while their body has decayed. At least I can respect them and not force to assault them. At least I have a management team to work with instead of vindictive or dishonest behavior.
You may think I’m not OK. But I am. I have weathered through a very complicating nursing life. As interesting as it has been, it has equally been sad and tragic. It has been a large portion of my life.
This nursing life.
I have loved you.
And I have hated you.
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