Tuesday morning in my Anatomy and Physiology lab, we covered aneurysms. Since it’s not something everyone has heard of, an aneurysm is a weak spot in an artery. As arterial pressure increases, the aneurysm will balloon out and fill with blood. The higher the pressure, the higher the chance of the aneurysm rupturing. After explaining the basics, my instructor then shared an anecdote from his time working in a high school.
A young (teenage) boy went into the nurse’s office complaining of headache and nausea. She sent him back to class, but agreed that he could come back if it got worse. Twenty minutes later, he walked back into the nurse’s office, fell to the floor, and quickly succumbed to a burst aneurysm in his brain. The nurse yelled for help, and my instructor, who was a nurse in the army, came running. When he checked the student’s pupils, he saw that one was already blown (fully dialated and not sensitive to light). He realized there wasn’t anything he could do, except hold the student while he died.
The lesson he was trying to impart was not about being hypervigilant for signs of an aneurysm. What he wanted to get across to us is that sometimes, a patient crosses a line to where they no longer need a doctor, or a nurse; when that happens, they need a human being. He said that we’ll eventually learn there are a lot of medical conditions over which we have little to no control, and that being a nurse isn’t all drawing blood, taking temperatures, asking how many bowel movements a patient has had. Being a nurse, being a good nurse, means knowing how to let go, and accepting that people die. It’s about knowing that sometimes, your job is just to hold someone, and let them know that they are not alone while they die.
As he told this story, I had to bite my lip to keep from crying. This very thing is what I terrifies me the most, and why I know I can’t work in pediatrics.
I’ve lived a pretty sheltered life. A few years ago, I considered becoming a chemical dependency (drug) counselor. I thought I knew what addiction was, and what it looks like. Then I got a job working with drug addicts, and realized that until then, I had NO clue what the real world looked like. About 80% of the time, my clients were just average people who didn’t have any other coping mechanisms due to childhood trauma. The other 20% was a huge shock for me. I met people with arms full of needles marks from injecting cocaine or heroin. I had clients that let their drug dealer rape their young daughters, just so they could get a fix. I was forced to learn impartiality; for the first two weeks, I came home crying every single day. After that, I just did my job the best that I knew how.
I’ve only seen one person die. I was a kid, probably six or seven. My dad’s friend had a party at a local park. My mom didn’t want to go, because it was a really dangerous area, but my dad insisted. My mom was right, though. A few hours after we got there, a kid (teenager) came stumbling into the middle of the party, bleeding profusely because he had been stabbed multiple times. They called for an ambulance, but he bled to death before it got there.
I’ve had pets die, of course. The worst was when I had to have my little pit bull put to sleep because she kept trying to eat the neighborhood cats. Elsie was the sweetest, most lovable dog I ever had. She loved to sleep under the covers, next to me, with her head on my pillow. She was my baby. When she died, I wanted to die.
It’s not my own mortality that bothers me. I know I’m going to die someday, because everyone does. What bothers me is that my patients will be mothers, fathers, sisters, cousins, aunts, grandmothers…they will have people who love them, who count on them. I can’t simply objectify someone into “just a patient.” I hope I never can. I hope that I always understand that above all else, the patient is a person.
“Bright before me, the signs implore me, help the needy, and show them the way. Human kindess is overflowing…and I think it’s going to rain today.