“He what?!” I replied in shock.
“He died last night,” my nightshift coworker answered.
I didn’t tell him goodbye.
I didn’t say that last part out loud. I simply thought it to myself. I guess I couldn’t speak it out loud. It was as if I feared giving my feelings a verbal voice would cause the cool, professional demeanor we all strived to maintain to instead crumble in grief. I suppose that part is wrong, though. We didn’t strive to be aloof; we just had to remain disconnected in a sense to keep doing the job. Especially this year.
If any year could go down in history for trying to crush the spirit of nursing, it would be 2020, the year of COVID-19. As a critical care nurse I have watched too many people die this year. I mean, outcomes are often poor in the ICU, but this novel virus has taken things to a whole new level. There was a period of time this year where I watched at least one patient die per my shift, and many times more. One patient doesn’t seem like a lot, until you add them together, day after day, month after month, shuffling in for another crazy shift, praying that a success story would emerge.
A story. You see, it wasn’t just a room number or patient vacating a bed. It was a story, a beautiful life story, a real person, with family, friends, and a purpose in this world. As a bedside nurse you learned these people’s stories. You spoke to crying wives on the phone, you watched hysterical daughters try not to fall apart as they waved through the glass window to their mom who didn’t know they were there.
You said things like, “he seemed like he was doing better yesterday…”
Or you lamented, “I feel so bad for her three, young children at home.”
Sometimes we shared the stories. They were just too heartbreaking to keep inside. We didn’t mention things like names, but rather the way the father of four had made us appreciate life. I had told my husband about this most recent life story.
“Can you imagine,” I asked my husband, “being stuck in a glass box for over three weeks, not seeing your family, just strangers in masks who come in every once and a while? Can you imagine not being able to breathe good enough to even take a bite of food? I feel so bad for him!”
I had not taken care of him the day/night he died. They had given me another assignment. All day I had considered going into his room to say hello. I kept meaning to go in and try and brighten his day, but the hours had passed without me doing it. Whether it was the busyness of my own assignment, or the fact of all the personal protective equipment I had to put on to enter his room, I had missed the opportunity to say hello, or even goodbye. I knew he was doing bad, but I was hopeful he’d make it. I was always hopeful.
“I wish I could hug your neck.”
That’s what he had said, in between labored breaths and the roar of the sealed mask pushing air into his stubborn lungs. I had sang to him. He frigging loved it. He said I made his day. I had come in frequently, even though the gowning up was a chore, and we weren’t supposed to overly expose ourselves. Lord, I had even gotten down in his face, through his sputtering coughing, trying to hear what he spoke in his weak, short of breath conversations. I remember simply praying for God to keep the seal of my own mask tight. That man needed someone to know they cared, to give him a quick sip of water before he frantically asked to put the oxygen mask back on. And it made me feel good when I scratched his back and he said, “you’re the best!”
That’s what I thought of when I found out he didn’t win his battle with COVID-19. His story. And his personal story stacked on top of all the other stories from this year. The woman my age, who also had three daughters. Or the guy who couldn’t speak English and looked scared to death as we tried to explain emergent intubation without an interpreter present. I thought of all the weeping families, and I also thought of the gratitude they had bestowed our way even in the midst of their own grief.
I think about those sad stories, too many lost for a single year, and I try not to think about the coming months, the tragedy they could bring. I cling to things like memories of where I helped ease pain, prayed with a spouse over the phone, or the hope that this virus is getting weaker. I think of Queen Esther in the Old Testament, and how her uncle surmised amidst danger and possible death, “perhaps you were made for such a time as this.”
Maybe that is why we do what we do. Perhaps we were made for such a time as this. I’m pretty tired of unprecedented happenings this year, but I would encourage all my nursing peers with this thought. If not us, then who? Who would care for the hurting and dying? Who would scratch backs, offer a cool drink, or sing a joyful song in the middle of a trying situation?
2020 has tried to crush the spirit of nursing, but we’re pretty good at fighting back. Just know, I grieve with you. I recall life stories cut short with you. I link gloved hands, across the world, and I lift you all up in my prayers. We will beat this.