The People Fade, but the Stories Do Not.

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In 1957 my grandmother received her nursing pin as a graduate of a diploma nursing program, in the era before the emergence of formal nursing education. Nine years ago my grandfather gave me that pin when I graduated with my BSN and now the pin sits in a pretty box in my room like a treasure, something full of lost memories. It’s grown tarnished over the past sixty years, fading to a dusky golden color that has lost it’s original sparkle, but every time I look at it, it grows in value. That pin has become a symbol to me of many truths- that my actions are bigger than me, that legacies really are something to strive for, even in our culture that seems to think that nothing lasts, and that this profession will never die. The pin has meaning to me now because I ended up with the same job title and because I know how hard she had to work for it. How much she had to sacrifice to be a nurse. How I benefitted from her perseverance.

Although I don’t know a whole lot about my grandmother’s story, I know that she worked on the weekends while my grandfather watched my mother and her sister. I know she wore white shoes and a white hat to accompany her white uniform. I know that she worked at a psychiatric facility, probably straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I know that she was a kind, caring person who loved her family and I can only assume loved her patients in the same way. She passed away when I was in middle school and I wish so badly that I could hear her stories, that we could go out to dinner and that she could tell me the honest truth about what it was like back then. The good, the bad and the ugly. I think I’ve been in the trenches in the trauma ICU but I’m sure she could beat me by a long shot. Working in a psych facility in the 50’s automatically trumps any crazy stories I could tell.

What’s the point of this? Yes, my grandmother was an amazing woman and she should be honored as the first nurse in my family and a contributor to my own career path. But I’m getting at something else. We all have nurses who stand out in our mind, those who have worked extremely hard to love people day in and day out, those people who have impacted you in a significant way. Some of those people are memorable because they’re valiant soldiers who braved bedside dangers and trials, maybe even on your behalf. Others remain lodged in our memory because they were crooks and narcissistic thieves, people who spread shame like a contagious disease across the great name of nursing. Most of us have interactions with a plethora of people but there will always be those who left a mark. Here are a few of the memorable nurses in my life, for both good and bad reasons, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the nurses who have impacted you.

  1. My very first preceptor as a new graduate in the ICU– I spent the better part of the five months wondering whether she actually hated me or not. She was a fireball, always looking over my shoulder to correct me, always pushing me farther than I thought I could go. I had more than one day where I disappeared into the supply room to cry. She made me take patients that I thought were out of my league, assigned us to double isolation to learn clustering my care, and gave out smiles like rare jewels, reserved only for special occasions. I couldn’t wait to graduate and be free from her. It wasn’t until I started precepting new nurses myself that I realized how great of a preceptor she had been, for stretching me while I was still young and under her care, for actually caring how I turned out as a nurse.
  2. Night shift nurse who scared the crap out of me as a new grad– On one of my first nights on my own after graduating from my ICU nurse residency program, I was assigned to a patient. My patient happened to be positioned next to the patient of a scary-looking night shift RN. She was unknown to me, with bags underneath her eyes and ratty, nasty hair. Her eye liner drooped haphazardly down her face. She told me weird stories about her daughter as I tried to escape her and do my work. And then she told me that nobody actually gives the insulin prescribed on the sliding scale protocol. What good does 2 units actually do anyone? she argued. I politely disagreed and spent the rest of the night avoiding her, terrified of what else was going to come out of her mouth. She got arrested and fired for being high at work only a few weeks later.
  3. My mother’s friend who let me shadow her in high school– As a junior in high school I was fairly certain that I wanted to work in the ED or ICU as a nurse so one of my mother’s friends let me shadow her for a night in the ED at a major hospital. I borrowed a pair of scrubs and fastened all the bravery I could muster as I walked in to the hospital with her that night, having no real idea what I was walking into. I pretty much failed at being helpful, even at taking a temperature, and I almost passed out when we received a trauma patient who had been thrown from a horse. But I walked out after that experience feeling like I had found my true calling, a job that was hard-core and exciting and would push the limits of what I thought I was capable of at that time. I followed that dream and have always been thankful that this nurse took the time to show a high school student what nursing could look like.
  4. The nurse that made me almost have a heart attack– one night when I was a new grad, another nurse told me that I was getting a level one trauma hit in my empty bed. I had never taken a level one on my own and I was literally speechless. He told me to get the rapid infuser and a few other pieces of equipment and I spent the next ten minutes racing around the unit, trying to keep from peeing in my pants. After those ten minutes he couldn’t stand it any longer; he told me it was a joke. I didn’t understand and at first I thought he hated me for playing such a cruel trick. But then I realized that it actually meant that people liked me on the unit, otherwise they wouldn’t have teased me like that.
  5. My many friends on the unit– Seeing death every day bonds people together, and I think this is seen acutely with nurses. I cannot tell you how many of my friends, three specifically, treated me more like a sister than a coworker. We helped each other when one of us was getting overwhelmed. We cried when we lost a patient.  We took snack breaks together. We vented about whoever was on our nerves that day. We switched shifts when someone needed it. We sacrificed ourselves for each other, not out of duty, but out of love. And those memories never disappear.

This is nothing to say of the many physicians, chaplains, managers, patient care assistants, and others who will live on forever in my mind. A few physicians that I would like to never see again (and a few that I loved!), a chaplain who I still miss seeing her shining face, a manager who truly always had my back. I remember the stories because of the people in them. I wonder if I am burned into anyone’s memory, if I live on in their story.

I have no idea whether anyone in my family after me will go into the medical profession. My two year old daughter has a Doc McStuffins bag and carries it around giving “check ups” so I’m hopeful for her. But regardless of whether I hand her my nursing pin one day or not, I hope that she will know that her mother loved her and loved other people and was brave and kind and smart and often made mistakes but always asked for forgiveness. I hope my coworkers remember me in the same ways but in the vein of honesty, maybe I’m even tattooed in someone’s brain for something negative, although I hope not. Nobody is perfect. Legacy is inherently built inside of a family, including a hospital one, and I believe there is value in pursuing a memory that leaves a mark.

A woman wearing white shoes passing out pills to psych patients probably never though she would end up being the subject of a blog post one day. I would venture to say the same thing about us. We simply cannot understand the ramifications of our actions and how they may alter the future. Life is ironic like that. We remember faces long after we forget the names.

We remember the stories, long after the people have faded.

 

 

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