Old Nurses Never Die; They Just Have Surgery

Jul 20, 2016

Left on the whiteboard by an elderly patient I cared for.

Robin. I had penned the letters over silk tape and stuck it to a locker 7 years ago. I caught the corner and pulled it off, closed the empty locker door and headed out, taking one last look at the small break room.

The room is tucked away, off a hallway used by everyone from Risk Management to Interpreters to Float Pool, but is seldom used at all. There’s no TV in it; just a small table and 3 chairs. But it’s a room I’ve used every work-morning to pray in, as I watch the steady flow of workers crossing the parking lot and the sun edging up over the bog. I slow myself down, making sure Jesus leads before I jump into the unknown world of the sick or injured. The room also provided a small respite at many lunch breaks, allowing me to reflect in silence, away from the din of alarms, phones, call bells and anxious families.

I entered the world of healthcare 30 years ago by answering an ad in the paper for a Personal Care Attendant, or PCA. If you had asked anyone who knew me then, I would be on your Least-likely-to-become-a-nurse list or just least-likely-to-care. I had little patience for sissies with sniffles, and my sons will tell you I had Zero Tolerance for whining.

“Go to you room if you need to whine,” I would tell them, and they quickly learned that whining to yourself is absurd.

So I answered the ad. The wife of a 40-year-old quadriplegic needed help. Jimmy had broken his neck drunk on a motorcycle and now depended on someone else to feed, wash, dress and move him. It was the first time I had to push past the awkwardness of a helpless human body, so vulnerable and frail, and learn to care for the soul within it as well. This was a huge learning curve and there were days where Jimmy and I both wanted to quit.

It was no coincidence that Jimmy’s wife, and reluctantly Jimmy, were born again Christians and I was not. This man, with just enough strength to push out the air to argue, caught me in the middle of his beef with a God that would lay him up in bed for the next 20 years, at the mercy of clueless people like me. Oddly, it positioned me in a place of wanting to know a few things too, and before I left Jimmy’s for nursing school, I too had surrendered to this beautiful and terrifying Father who could woo us with cords of boundless love and mercy yet love us enough to let us go, even if it meant crashing into a telephone pole drunk.

As I walk down the deserted hallway from the break room, the rooms behind the closed doors come alive in my memory. I first worked on this floor as a “student nurse” in the late 80’s, then hired as an RN when I graduated. I remember caring for a 90-year-old woman here, my young face startled by her pale gossamer skin and network of tiny blue veins threading up her arms. She was amused by my innocence.

Then in this room, my first young guy, a diabetic, handsome and flirtatious, and how I flushed when I had to give him an IM injection in his left buttock. And room 27, where I saw my first dead man, sitting up in bed like he was watching TV, but he was gone, just a body that I would help wrap and pull the zipper over his face. I have never grown used to that. And I remember an older nurse, like me now, telling me “No matter what, take a break. Get off the floor!” And I’ve held to that advice, 26 years later.

But I’ve always loved nursing, to be face to face with sickness, and the despair and fear it can bring. To be there, to join in, has been as natural for me as breathing and I recognize it as a particular gift from God, made more perfect after I lost my son 14 years ago. “Deep calls to deep,” the Bible says. When you have gone through some things, others will trust you with their pain.

I have an old nurses body now; the shoulder has been injected, the hip scoped, the back MRI’d and I think the knees are next on the chopping block. So I’ve taken a step back from the bedside into the IV team when I return from surgery. I will still see many patients, but I will not be washing them, hauling them out of bed or  whispering in their ear when they are trying to die. But I know my God, and I know He never takes back His gifts, He just changes the scenery from time to time.

I’m glad nursing has never defined me, and I always feel a little sorry for nurses who do try to get their sense of purpose from a career that doesn’t often give back in the ways we want – few kudos from the upper echelon, often yelled at by a patient long before you get a thanks (You want me to get up?!?!) and spending a lot of time in places with “output” that I won’t describe here, although if you see a group of nurses together laughing until they cry, it’s likely over the things we can’t tell anyone. “Fine,” is what I tell my husband at dinner when he asks how my day went. As all the faces and images flash before me, I know Fine is safe and enough.

Neither do I define myself by being a wife, mom and a grandma, roles I cherish way beyond nursing. I would drive them all crazy if I did. As it is, I have a husband who still adores me, two beautiful daughter-in-laws who apparently love me, but more importantly love Jesus, my sons and grandchildren. I simply can’t ask for more.

Delight your self in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4 ESV

Many of us just use Jesus as an add-on, like a rabbit’s foot charm.

If I do this, then I get that.

It’s in our Promise Book, conveniently alphabetized for a quick look; Children, Health, Wealth with a coordinating scripture we can chant over our own selfish wants. But delighting ourselves in Him means our lives are hid in Christ and He in us. It is a posture of submission that grants abiding and oneness, so that our desires will always align with His will. Obedience becomes a joy, not a hard task. And what I think I really need may be the precise thing He will remove or never give. Can we trust this Jesus, this God-man who says we must hand over all, including our plans and our identity?

Corrie Ten Boom said “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.” This was a truth I discovered after Spence died, and that pit seemed bottomless. As a nurse, I have had to stake my career on it; that in the despondent alcoholic, the cancer ridden mother and the cries of a parent who lost a child, whether that child is 6 or 60, I can share that place of overwhelming darkness because Jesus has gone before us.

My nursing career is not done yet, just transitioning once again. And my hope and prayer is this:

God, use whatever I have in every new place, in each new day. Give me manna for today that I may share it, giving glory back to you. Your crazy daughter — Robin