Remembering to Feel
I don't know if I am alone in the struggle to remember how to feel when bad things happen to other people. I like to be the strong one, the one that can buckle down and get the job done. I am hyper rational and feel that if a tragedy hasn't directly affected me, I have no right to share the grief of a victim's family and friends. But this article is about a weekend at work that shook that theory.
Life can get crazy. For as long as I can remember I've heard all sorts of tragic stories. When I open the newspaper I read about countless bombings, shootings, house fires, and snipers. But I have become numb to the fact that bad things happen, and it takes effort to let myself be affected by them. I know that it seems cold and insensitive, but if there is nothing that I can do about a situation I pick myself up and move forward. None of these tragedies have directly affected me. They aren't my stories.
I feel like this at work sometimes too. In the four months since I transferred to the MICU I have seen countless septic cancer patients, alcoholic GI bleeders, and a variety of debilitating autoimmune disorders. Don’t get me wrong, I have compassion, I really do. But I know that life happens, and some people get dealt a bad hand. I know that sooner or later everyone has to deal with an illness or event that will rock their world, and my job is to be there and treat them when it happens. But this weekend has been a barrage of absolutely terrible cases and my normal techniques for leaving work at work just haven’t been effective, no matter what I do.
There was the healthy 18 year old girl with a recent orthopedic surgery who had a massive PE and coded for over 2 hours in the ED. For 36 hours she was ventilated and on pressors, they tried arctic sun in the faint hope to conserve functioning brain tissue. But all of our interventions were not enough, and they withdrew care on Sunday. I will never forget the faces of her two younger siblings as they left her room the day that their big sister died. There were the two men in their early 40’s, neither one with significant medical histories. One had a stroke that herniated on Saturday, the other had an AVM that hemorrhaged and was declared brain dead less than 12 hours later. One minute he woke up from his sleep with a headache and went downstairs for some aspirin, the next minute his wife found him unconscious on the kitchen floor. But I kept on caring for my two patients as I watched these families trying to cope. Like I said, life happens. Right?
Sunday afternoon before the 18 year old’s room was even clean the charge nurse came into the nurse’s station with the kicker. A woman 7 months post partum with 3 children got into an argument with her husband. While he was taking a walk to clear his head, she hung herself in a closet and was found by her 5 year old daughter. I felt like a weight was dropped on my chest. Can you even imagine? Can you imagine being a 5 year old girl and finding your mommy like that? Or being a husband who will blame himself for this for the rest of his life? And there I was, carrying on with my day. When I took my patient for walks around the unit, every other room was filled with grieving families. When I left work I went to a superbowl party and everyone was laughing and drinking and having a great time, and all I could think about was the unimaginable grief that 4 families were experiencing. I couldn't cry until I was alone with my boyfriend last night, when he finally asked me for details on why my weekend was so bad. I told him these stories in between sobs, and for the first time in the last 3 days I really felt something.
So yes, my job is to be there. But it doesn't mean that I can’t grieve with the families of my patients. I am allowed to feel, whether I am involved with the patient’s care or not. I am allowed to cry, even if a tragedy didn't directly affect my life. And for now, I will hold my nieces and nephews just a little bit longer. And I will say “I love you” just a little bit more often. And I will continue to be thankful that I can walk, and talk, and breathe. Life may be short, but it isn't over yet.