On The Other Side of the Bed : Six Take-a-Ways From a Nurse Who Became a Patient

Jun 9, 2021

My tail is showing!

I held the remote loosely in my hand, respectful of the power within. How many times had I reviewed the colored buttons? The yellow light bulb, green TV in big letters flanked by volume and channel buttons, then the large red button at the top, which for many years had a nurse icon of a woman wearing a hat. “That’s me in the hat.” I’d say. Some laughed, some didn’t.

My thumb moved up to the red button and I drew a breath and pressed. It lit up and I could hear what sounded like a soft “ding…ding…ding” echoing up the hall. Interesting, I thought. It doesn’t sound that quiet at the nurses’ station, where it merges with at least four other alarms at any given time. Once I counted eight.

I had intentionally waited past change-of-shift- report, and in my mind I saw a nurse on the phone or in another patient’s room, a CNA or tech as they were called at this hospital, trying to make her rounds glancing at my light on, and the mental bulletin board that now has one more thing tacked to it. And I also knew that if I tried to get up to the bathroom on my own,  an alarm that must’ve been created by a prison warden would sound, and then a small crowd of harried personnel would descend upon me, part angry, part relieved that I am not splayed across the floor. So I waited.

I thought about my over 30 years of taking care of people like me, wearing oversized johnnies, helpless, grumpy – how sometimes I would see them as broken objects that required multiple tasks and interventions just to keep them alive (ER nursing), or as almost inanimate beings that had been culled apart into varying systems that somehow would become a whole (ICU). I remember my disappointment on my first day as a critical care nurse when I realized that for the most part, none of my patients could respond. They were intubated, surrounded by chirping pumps, flashing numbers and squawking ventilators. For this reason, I have always been drawn back to bedside nursing. Holding the hand of dying man or dancing in the bathroom with an Alzheimer’s patient, finding a place of trust and truth with the addict, or just making someone laugh; I know it’s a gift God gave me.

“Thank you for your care,” an elderly man told me a few weeks ago. “You have a way of taking away my anxiety.” We can’t always fix everyone, but we can make the day a little less daunting. I think I would’ve loved working with Florence Nightingale – the Grand Dame of the bedside. She was tough but compassionate, a zealous advocate for her patients. Maybe I could carry her lamp.

They say nurses make the worst patients. Define “worst.” I’ve cared for sick people for decades  in a huge variety of settings. Nurses don’t normally like the tables turned. Really, we can take care of ourselves. Yet I was humbled during my recent three night stay which was supposed to be just one. Oh, those irritating little complications which just seemed to pop up like a Whack-a-mole game in an arcade. My vison for my surgery was an easy one – hopping away with accolades from the healthcare team. I would overhear someone say, “Isn’t she remarkable, how quickly she was up and running!” Well, no – it didn’t go that way at all, starting in recovery when my blood pressure read 70 then a pesky bleed that required three units of blood, then a night of muscle spasms so intense I begged the nurse to empty the full arsenal of available pain killers into my mouth and veins. My last words to this kind soul were, “Do you think I might stop breathing?” Honestly, I didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t either. I woke up six hours later knowing right away I was not in heaven, but pain free. If you know me well at all, words like Stubborn, Obstinate, Willful might be in your descriptive cache, but I can argue (obstinately) that those are sometimes good traits. Yet as I lay in bed, unable to do anything on my own other than work the remote with the big red button at the top, I was humbled. And grateful.

I did not like being called a hero during the Covid pandemic. Yes, I cared for Covid patients. I became a nurse during the AIDS epidemic, when all anyone knew about it was that it killed. We didn’t know how, we just knew if we got it, we would die. So we wore what looked like Hazmat suits into their rooms, not knowing any better. Eventually we learned the truth, and we could sit next to them and hug them if they needed it. They often did. That’s a hero, looking beyond the disease and loving someone. The nurses on our Covid floor and ICU who went beyond the call of duty to make sure no one had to die alone – that’s a hero. But so is the nurse’s aide who bathes the withdrawing alcoholic from head to toe, shaves him and combs his hair so that some sort of dignity is retained. We are humans with a gift to love the un-loveables and bring mercy and light to those gripped by the sudden unknowns of sickness and injury. Sometimes we heal; sometimes we just hold hands. Or dance.

       Oh yeah! Now for six take-aways in no particular order.

  1. For my peers – every nurse, tech, aide, call bell-answerer – don’t take every patient personally. We are not mad at you! We just found out we’re not in control, and maybe a bit scared. Or grumpy, even sad. No reflection on YOU – just be kind. Smile. Be your beautiful self.
  2. Don’t be a nurse if you don’t care. Or doctor, or PA or NP. The patient can tell and is not wowed by your MENSA IQ, your flip dismissal of their true needs or seeing your name on the bleeping whiteboard.
  3. Patients – past, present and future. Just because your nurse is sitting down doesn’t mean she is shopping on Amazon. He or she could be saving your life by checking your labs, vital signs, meds and orders. If it sounds quiet, it could be because everyone is in another room saving a life, or cleaning up a colossal mess. Short answer; you don’t know.
  4. Your nurse or aide is not your Personal Care Assistant. We are REALLY busy with other patients and families, trying to help the sickest first. Be glad you are NOT the sickest! This is 2021 – resources are scarce, including our time. We are stretched to the outermost. Add this to the “new Normal.”
  5. I pray in the parking lot every morning before work. I ask Jesus to make me more like Him, to be a slice of God’s light in an often dark place. Sometimes, when the light starts to dim, I have to pray again in the bathroom. God doesn’t care. Same for when I was a patient, although my prayer was more like this: Help!!! He likes that one too. So if you don’t know Jesus, you really should. He hears us.
  6. Don’t bring make-up or even a hairbrush to the hospital. Something about those hospital johnnies liberates you from caring one iota about how you look.

I am home and hobbled for a while, but I think about my coworkers more than I thought I would. I work with an amazing team of nurses, CNA’s, NPs, docs and housekeepers. And an amazing manager. Pandemic or not, they are my heroes. And this is coming from a nurse who just crossed over into the bed. And was humbled.

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” — Psalm 73:26