How is Work: The Question I Struggle to Answer as a Nurse

It must seem odd, why I hesitate. It’s a pretty standard question in standard conversation. “How is work?” But I hesitate every time, and I think at times I stare at the person questioning me. I’m trying to gauge how much they want to know. Do you want an easy answer? “Work is busy. Our unit is really busy.” It’s always easier to give the easy answer. Sometimes I think they really want to know, but then I think they might discover halfway through my response that no, they don’t actually want to hear this, but shoot it’s too late and now it’s gotten really uncomfortable.

Well, here is my answer for the standard inquiry. Maybe, after reading this, only those who really want to know will ask in the future, “How is work?” It’s hard to share, and it’s probably even harder to hear, if this is not your typical work week. Not everyone gets it, and not everyone wants to. And that’s ok. Just understand, this is why I hesitate. And this is why I can not always function in normal life like a totally normal person. Because you see, I’ve just got a lot on my mind.

I spent a day with a child who was abused by adults who were given a chance to honor his innocence, and blew it with their own anger, their own immaturity, their own unresolved pain. I spent the day watching a loving caregiver quietly wipe her tears as she held him, unable to understand why he was restless and at times inconsolable. He wanted milk and then he didn’t. He wanted to walk and then he didn’t. He himself didn’t know what he needed, and all we wanted was to quiet his confused heart and reassure him that his wishes would never be disrespected again. We wanted to fix it all. Fix his life, fix the system, fix this awful complicated situation, fix it all. I will never know what became of him.

I spent an afternoon with a child who was not well. He got really sick, and then he got a little better, and then he got a lot worse. The doctors and I looked at the monitor, and they told me I should probably go get more help, in that calm, sober voice that PICU doctors use when they recognize what is starting to happen. You should probably go get more help. I went to get the crash cart and I had to pass by the parents. I could feel their searching eyes on me. I could not look at them. I always thought that would be my strength, reaching out and bravely giving the parents the respect of eye contact, acknowledging their fear, giving them some kind of expression that would tell them I see their fear, I’m going to help, I hope I can help. I could not look at them because I was afraid my eyes would tell them I’m sorry for your loss, before it was time to say I’m sorry. The numbers on the monitor were not good. It was my first time doing compressions. It was just like all those CPR classes, but it wasn’t, really. It mattered now. The two longest minutes of compressions finally were up and we looked for the rhythm. It wasn’t good. Two more minutes. No. Two more. No. Two more. No. Two more. No. Two more. No. Two more. No. Two more. No. Two more. No. No. No more. I turned off the pain medicine, the heart medicines. The parents had been at the doorway the entire time. The nurses and doctors quietly stepped away from the bedside to let the family come say good-bye. “No me dejes!!! Tu eres mi bebe!! No me dejes, mi amor…!!” There is no sound that exists in the world like that of a mother’s cry for her baby to please, don’t leave me. I barely kept my composure long enough to take off my mask, gown and gloves before leaving the room. A coworker found me and I rested in her arms for a long while. We carried each other’s heaviness. The team met to debrief about the medical situation and the code. We ended with a moment of silence for the patient, the family, and for ourselves. A moment to acknowledge a life, a mother’s heartache, and our own humanness as healthcare workers who do so much, but can only do so much.

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