Now, before I get started kittens, I know somebody out there will point this out if I don’t mention it up front. Yes, for the past year plus I am madly, deeply, head over heels in love with a registered nurse, and if you’ve been around awhile, you will know who Nurse Sunshine is. So yes, I do have a slight bias about this topic, but I had encountered a multitude of professional nurses before we met, and this is about each and every one of them too!
Now, a great deal of the personal knowledge I have about the inspiration, dedication, sense of duty, honour, and more that makes up the people who are part of the nursing profession I do know first hand from the many and varied conversations that Sunshine and I have had. I have an even better and deeper understanding of all of these aspects of nurses, something I had suspected to be true before, but now I know for certain, and to the levels that they reach.
Now, if you are like me, and a child of the 60s, you likely have a vision of nurses from your earliest memories, and I’d bet this image is close to what you were thinking:
You would remember the times… the medical profession was very much divided along gender lines, men became doctors, women became nurses. Thankfully in the decades that followed, those ancient ways were disposed of and we have a healthy mix of all genders in both professions, and you’ll probably see scrubs as standard wear versus the starched white dresses, stockings, white shoes, and the starched caps. In some cases, the stripe indicated a registered nurse, although in other uses, the number of stripes denoted seniority or years of service. It varies from country to country and if you research this topic, you can find as many articles with differing points of view, as there are stars in your night sky. In Canada, you saw them regularly in all settings until the 1980s when surgical scrubs came into regular use (and more comfortable and easy to clean too!).
Our family doctor’s practice in the 60s had 4-6 doctors and one head nurse with one or two young nurses depending on the need and patient appointments that day. Mrs. Walters, I remember her to this day, an older lady, hair pinned up, spotless uniform, a watch brooch pin, and three stripes on her nurse’s cap. I suppose you could describe her as matronly in appearance, but she had a heart of gold and everybody she interacted with left with a smile. And talk about skills! If you had to get a booster shot or two, or needed to have blood drawn, she would have that needle in and out and a bandage on before you even noticed. Between us kittens, I wish doctors of that era had her talent for patient care! Biggest shock I ever got was when she retired in the early 80s, and seeing her in the office without her uniform, her hair down, and chatting with the other staff and patients. Retirement was mandatory once you reached a certain age or years of service in that time. And I can promise you this much, they sure missed her when she was no longer working there!
But, the modern era brought changes, some way overdue. Nurses were able to handle more duties, both in general practices and in hospitals and in every other field of medicine. And it’s about damn time too. And as we began to see women doctors in everyday life, we began to see men enter the nursing field (granted, both cases got a lot of ugliness from the less-enlightened types out there… and no, crossing into other fields did not bring into question the sexual orientation of any professional, at least among the thinking population, even if there are some knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathers still stomping around on the face of the earth).
My paternal grandmother was a walking encyclopedia of health issues. Particularly once she got into her 60s and older, visits to the emergency room or admittance to hospital for something, became the norm, not the exception. That’s when you see professionals in nursing in action at every step of the way. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, she could try the patience of a saint to the point where they were using fuck like a comma. Never an issue for the nurses though. The only time it became too much for them was during the SARS crisis in Toronto, after daily ambulance runs to ER and back again, they finally admittted her because as soon as she got home she would stop breathing again. By this point, her Alzheimer’s dementia was in full swing, and she was unmanageable by anybody, and could not be sedated because she had had a tracheotomy and was struggling against the machines. They finally called us and Mom offered to go up and tend to her, she was the only one who could settle her down. She had to scrub and suit up like she was going in to perform surgery while I waited outside with the car. Mom said as the elevator doors opened on that floor, she could hear her in full voice hollering the walls down. And yet, once Mom had been in and explained who all the nurses were and what they were doing, she settled down and we didn’t need to go back until she was ready to be discharged a few weeks later.
And, one memory from an emergency room visit, one of the nurses in that area put her head around the door and said it’s going to get very noisy in here in a few seconds, if you can, please stay in here, there’s going to be a lot of activity. As she said the last word, you could hear the code being called over the PA system, and yes, a lot of noise, as carts and equipment and staff came running to work on that patient. Pure chaos for a while, and then it went totally silent. The nurse from earlier poked her head around the door to let us know we were free to move about. Mom looked at her eyes on the verge of tears, and said, “Not a good result?” No. Can you take a quick break and come out for some air? Mom asked. No, afraid I cannot, I have to get this young man wrapped up and ready to be taken downstairs (morgue). To be honest, I was desperate to pee about 2 or 3 hours ago, and I want that more than anything, but not until I finish up, and I need to change before I work with any more patients. Quick look down, her shoes were spattered in blood, her scrubs were spotted in it up to her thighs. And that my dear kittens is just one example. I can bet you that she hadn’t even stopped for lunch or a snack or a coffee during her shift, and that happens every single day. It takes a special kind of person to do that work.
Then, I can refer back to my experiences while taking care of my late mother while she battled terminal brain cancer. The nurses who worked on the Palliative Care ward, I simply cannot praise enough. Imagine what it takes in personality and skill to work in an area of medicine where none of your patients are going to be walking out the door to go home. Some are only there a few hours, a day, a few days. It was rare, they would have a patient like Mom who was beyond anything I could manage for her at home medically (thankfully her visiting nurse was a godsend, and kept her at home longer than should have been possible), and was with them for almost 11 weeks. We were treated like family by each and every one of those nurses. And the night, a week before Mom’s passing, she had three gran mal seizures in a row over the course of 5-6 hours. Our favourite nurse was head nurse on the evening shift when she had her first seizure, and while I was lying across the bed from rail to rail to keep her from convulsing off the bed and onto the floor, she took one look, hit the panic button on the wall, and everybody came running. Not a life-saving routine, you understand, but to try and control the seizure combined with the violent convulsions that her body was being thrown around by. Just as they thought the first one had subsided and she would have a calm night, a second one began as they connected another IV pump with another drug to keep her calm, quiet, and pain-free. Again, the panic button, and again, every nurse available was in the room working damn hard. Just as we thought after 20 or so minutes of quiet that she was settled for the night, number three began, and every one of them was back in the room working their hardest. As Mom’s doctor told me the following morning (he was waiting for me in her room when I arrived), on a scale of 1 to 10, she was about 15 the previous night, and if that last series of drugs hadn’t stopped it, his last resort was to put her into a drug-induced coma.
We had discussed all the various options and permutations and things that could happen in her final weeks as cancer ate away at her brain. He was apologizing for the previous night’s events. I said look, we both knew this would happen, just not at the severity that it did. I did have one favour to ask of him though. I wanted him to find out who the nursing manager was for the previous night and give her right and proper shit on my behalf. I could overhear her on the phone dressing down the nurses who had been caring for Mom that night through all three seizures because they didn’t call in and request permission to work overtime, and so she would not be approving the extra hours they worked for payment. What a total and complete BITCH! I said, look, I wasn’t meant to hear that, but I did, and that is totally unprofessional and uncalled for. He said he would take it up with management to get that corrected. But, I was holding in a laugh, when Mom’s favourite nurse who was taking the heat on the phone straightened up to her full height and said, “Well, next time Ms. Newman decides to have three gran mal seizures in a row, I shall inform her that unless she has requested overtime for her nurses, that she should wait until the day shift starts before proceeding with them.” I stayed late that night too, because where they parked was very poorly lit and I wanted to make sure that somebody walked them out to their cars when they left for home (security wouldn’t do that task). Amazing how the bean-counters have no interest beyond bottom line when it comes to professionals caring for patients.
Then I refer to this document. It is a pledge that I know my Sunshine, R.N. values highly to this day (decades after receiving her degree).
Now, some of you may balk at the language, but remember the era that it was written in. And also consider the dedication of those nurses who took this pledge when they graduated. Think of any professional field where they have an oath, a pledge, a creed, something that describes the level that those who work in that field are giving their lives to that career.
I know my Sunshine will never retire, she will be on her feet looking after her patients until she draws her final breath. It is who she is and what nursing means to her. Her first few decades were spent in pediatric oncology nursing. Think of some of the heartbreak seen in that field of medicine. A low cure rate, and a rarity to see patients leaving with a good outcome. When one did, they celebrated that moment! I absolutely treasure the story she told me about one of her patients, who chattered away non-stop about when they beat cancer and went home, they wanted a skateboard more than anything on the planet. Well, like me, she didn’t have children of her own, but we have both had hundreds of kids over the years. She went out and bought a skateboard, and a helmet, and knee and elbow pads, and arm and shin guards too, and a special t-shirt. Wrapped it all up and presented it to her patient on the day they were discharged. She said you don’t know joy until you see those wee eyes light up with pure glee upon seeing what was in the box and bags. Some months later, coming back for a check-up, and this wee one was pestering their mother that they had to take their pictures up to show Nurse Annie. Wasn’t interested int he doctor or check-up, had to get upstairs to see Nurse Annie to show her the pictures on the skateboard!! It is those small moments that she treasures, what shows her that following her mother’s path into nursing is truly her own calling too.
And between us kittens, I am so massively proud of her and what she does every day when she puts on her scrubs and heads into work. She truly is one of my personal heroes.
And so, I hope you took the time over this past week to stop and thank a nurse that you know. They are the people who make the world of medicine work. Nurses are involved in every single step of every area of modern medicine. These are the people who take care of your own family when they need medical care. It is always my hope that you never have to see the inside of a hospital, but if you do, thank the nurses who take care of you or your loved one. I am sure that those are two words they never hear enough of… THANK YOU.
To all the nurses who may come across this one day, you totally rock!