Recently, I have been meeting some soon-to-be-brand-new nurses who have wanted to hear from me about how I cope with the hardest things I see as a nurse. It is a deep and necessary question every nurse has to work through if you want to truly open your heart to the reality of others’ suffering and endure as a compassionate and effective caregiver. It has not felt like enough to say that I learn self-care. Wine, pedicures, massages, brainless days off – they all help but honestly, they don’t get to the heart of the matter. The recent tragic death of a friend whom I went to nursing school with, after being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer just two months ago, has forced me to realize that all my self-care efforts are just band-aids to the wounds that I feel from what I witness at work. Her death is pushing me to pay some serious attention to those wounds and the struggles that I’ve suppressed as a Christian nurse working in a pediatric ICU. I have had to ask myself why I believe in the goodness of God and what, exactly, do I believe that goodness looks like.
First, my suppressed struggles. The nurse, particularly the PICU nurse, stands in a very unique and conflicted place of tension between God and man. Nothing about a sick or dying child feels natural, and we are inclined to do everything we can to give a child a shot at life. The tension for the nurse is embedded in the reality that we now have more technology and medical advances than ever before, allowing us to sustain and prolong “life” even when “quality of life” has long been lost. In many cases, it becomes very difficult to then tell patients and families, much less ourselves, at what point we have all crossed the line in playing God. Patients and families can either hold out in a debatable form of hope for that “miracle” despite all suffering and costs, step tentatively into the agonizing journey of accepting death, or languish in some muddied in-between place until forced to make some kind of decision. It becomes terribly difficult to discern what God’s role is and what the manifestation of His goodness is supposed to look like in these situations. As the bedside nurse, there can be tremendous inner conflict when you feel that truly, God’s grace to very sick patients can come in the form of a gentle death, but you are the bedside nurse carrying out advanced treatment to prolong physical life and the concurrent suffering. When is enough enough? When is my role as the nurse actually doing more harm than good? I write this as a mother, with a deep reverence for the fact that it is impossible to ask a mother to part easily with her child if there might be a glimmer of hope for a cure, a remission, or at least some more time when both quantity and quality of life may be truly attainable. It’s just so hard to know how much to push the envelope when hope feels air-thin. It is a deep conflict that will only grow with technology.
Sometimes, when I watch patients’ families and friends come to the bedside to pray fervently and persistently for miracles, I just have to wonder what we all think the manifestation of God’s goodness is supposed to look like in response to these prayers. It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles. I’ve seen them, and I’ve seen them happen by way of all the technology we have available. I took care of a patient shot in the head and lungs on his very first day in the hospital when everyone swore there was no hope, and then I took care of him before he transferred to the rehab unit as he looked me in the eye and thanked me for everything. So it’s not that I don’t believe in God’s goodness in the form of miraculous healing. But we forget that God’s goodness is ultimately manifest in His provision for our souls to rest in Him, despite our stormiest of external circumstances. His goodness is first and foremost for us to find our sins forgiven through Jesus, such that come what may in this broken world, we may be confident that even death will not overcome us if we place our trust in Him. Perhaps then, we would not fear or fight death as violently as we do. Truly, it is the one who has never made peace with God who should fight death violently in the ICU. “For what does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) The greatest miracle is the heart that can grieve, but with a foundation of solid peace, joy and hope because of Jesus, even when physical death is imminent.