We live in a world consumed with arguments, selfishness, and greed. It only takes a glance at the news to become crestfallen about humanity. But, there is another side of humankind. There are many selfless people who labor relentlessly for others day in and day out with little recognition.
Over the past year, people around the world have begun praising the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who work around the clock to help COVID-19 patients. Between the reports about anti-maskers, racism, violence, and chaos are stories of overworked, exhausted nurses who have comforted patients through their darkest moments. I got to know some of these heroes before they rose to national fame.
It was not long into my illness when I realized the value of compassionate healthcare workers. While I have come across many extraordinary hospital employees, there are a few who truly went out of their way to put me at ease. I want to take the time to thank them and those like them; to remind them that they always have and will always matter to me and all of the patients whose lives they touch.
One of my earliest memories of a nurse going out of her way to comfort me occurred during my first hospital stay. The nurse apologetically entered my room for a 1:00 AM blood draw, explaining that she would try to do the test without turning on the light. When she came over to me, she paused and said, “nevermind, I am going to get you a facemask so that I can do this without disturbing you too much.” I insisted that I would be fine (I mean, who gets sleep in a hospital anyway?), but she persisted in doing everything she could to make me as comfortable as possible. She returned to my room a few minutes later with two eye masks and a pediatric needle that she explained would be less painful on my small, dehydrated veins. At this moment, my eyes filled with tears. The stabbing pain in my abdomen, hot flashes, hunger pains, and migraine were as strong as ever, but these were not tears of pain. They were tears of joy. I no longer felt like a patient; I was a person again. I felt cared for and protected; I felt safe.
A little over a year later, I needed to undergo emergency surgery to have my colon removed. I needed to be transported from my local Connecticut hospital to one in New York City. As the paramedics took me out to the ambulance, a hospital manager demanded that the nurse read off the serial number on all of my IV machines. The nurse refused. She asserted that she was taking care of a patient who was more important than the hospital’s equipment and did not have time for such petty matters. The person on the other end of the radio was unrelenting, demanding the number of the expensive machine. I told the nurse that it was all right. I could hold on for a few more minutes while she read the serial number. I did not want her to get in trouble.
She refused. She said “goodbye” to the person on the other end of the radio and explained that “patients are more important than machines.” This simple statement seems blatant to most, but the person on the other end of the radio did not see it that way. He was more concerned about getting his machines back than getting me the care I needed. This nurse put her job on the line to keep me safe and defend my humanity. To this day, I regret not writing down her name and sending a letter of appreciation to both her and her employer. I hope that she did not get reprimanded for her act of kindness and courage. We need brave nurses like her to speak up for us when we can not do it for ourselves.
I could probably list another fifteen or twenty nurses who have helped me throughout my hospital stays, but I do not have the space for that, and you certainly do not have the time to read it. So, I will end with one last nurse: my wound care and ostomy nurse. My second surgery resulted in a lot of complications. I ended up dragging myself into the city (a place I usually love) two to three times a week to have my wound and the surrounding skin treated. My new stoma was skin-level and kept leaking regardless of the special appliances I tried. The surrendering skin was bright red and cut from daily leaks and changes. The area constantly burned and itched as it scabbed over. Changing the appliance became a nightmare because it meant ripping off scabs. My ostomy nurse did not give up. She gave me dozens of appliances and creams to sample. She also looked out for me in ways that my surgeon did not (most likely due to time restraints. No hard feelings here). She insisted that I monitor my electrolyte level and advocated for me to have the next surgery as soon as my j-pouch healed. More importantly, she never made me feel incompetent for struggling with the process, both physically and mentally.
Chronic illness is hard. It adds yet another calamity to an already trying world. Those of us with chronic illness are often forced to deal with rude insurance companies, arrogant medical ‘professionals,’ and ableist attitudes. Yet, we also get a glimpse of the good in people. We must never allow the incompetent to cast a shadow over all of this light.