I recently had the privilege of nursing my dear niece back to health after a sudden simultaneous onset of pneumonia and another life-threatening condition.
I’m an English teacher, not a nurse. So the role was new, and, though brief, it afforded insight into a nurse’s world. Big thanks go out to nurse Katherine at Parkridge Hospital in Chattanooga who did the real work.
First insight: A nurse enters instantly into the intimate, physical world of another human being, body and soul. Nurses reading this say, ‘Duh.’ But for the rest of us, non-nurses, that takes a moment to absorb and get used to. The patient is beyond knowing or caring about finding the proverbial fig leaf. She has different priorities at the moment. The fig-leaf urge does return, but in the meantime, the suddenly-nurse must overcome her own unexpected Victorian sensibilities and be the one to preserve the patient’s dignity.
Second: A nurse assumes responsibility for this particular human being. It is a solemn task given by God, and the nurse knows it. ‘This one is mine, from liquid intake and output to encouragement and hope,’ the nurse pledges, and she feels that weight constantly. Because my niece’s parents live in Wisconsin, I was the closest relative and the de facto point man for the recovery phase. I was called up for such a time as this. For such a time as this is a nurse’s daily life.
Third: Because God is so good, when He gives the nurse the solemn charge for this particular human for this set season, He also bestows on finite caregivers a special wisdom, a trustworthy intuition, a set of eyes that see this person and what she needs. I have zero medical training, but a voice told me, among many other promptings, that weaning off the spirometer was ok once the patient was upright, mostly out of bed, and moving. I chose to trust the God-given voice rather than Google. And I loved the name ‘Incentive Spirometer’! The ‘incentive’ part seemed to be this ball that was supposed to float halfway in the little chamber if the pneumoniac breathes lustily enough. And I guess the measurement lines were incentive too, to get ever higher and higher. We marked ours with a sharpie and tried to top the mark each day. So yeah, incentive.
Fourth: If the nurse is the patient’s aunt, that is the perfect dynamic. An aunt has all the love of a mother, but not the same emotional weight, so she is free to touch the patient with a mother’s hand and also to say, ‘We’re going to walk a little bit after you eat and take your pill.‘ And the patient who feels weak and miserable and free to collapse if her mother said all that, says, ‘Ok.’ She feels loved by an aunt and bossed by a nurse, and that’s perfect.
Fifth: Charting! Even a non-nurse knows that the bane of a nurse’s life is charts or records or keeping track of what all. But, oh what a help a chart is; a chart well and truly tells the tale (which is a fascinating thought for a literature lover). I kept a log, down to the fact that I gave the patient Angela’s Ashes to read which was not exactly a sunshiny, recovery-encouraging memoir, but my niece loves New York, so it worked.
Sixth: The goal is independence. Isn’t that interesting? Who knew? From the moment we drove away from the hospital exulting in the sunshine, oddly enough, I understood that the goal is to work myself out of a job at the precise moment. It is threading the needle at its finest. It is ever moving that person through the stages of illness, readying them to take up their own care right when they are ready. I imagine determining that moment is tricky and permeates the whole of the caregiving process for each patient. But it is also challenging and exhilarating.
It was a happy moment when my niece reported that at her follow-up appointment, the pneumonia was all gone and the doctor was pleased with her progress in recovery. I felt like Nanny McPhee.