Introduction to this post
My friend Katrina Hoover Lee has been a blogger for years. She’s also written several books, the most recent one detailing the story of the Haiti missionaries kidnapped by a terrorist gang on October 16, 2021. Katrina gave me permission to share this blog post, which resonated with me. I’m also a nurse and her post brought so many memories.
Heading out the door of nursing
On August 15, 2022, also release day for Kidnapped in Haiti, I resigned from my “as needed” post on the medical floor at Elkhart General Hospital [Indiana] after over ten years of working as a nurse. I had only been working occasionally anyway, hardly enough to keep up-to-date. With a sixteen-month-old daughter, Kidnapped in Haiti releasing and the Brady Street Boys middle grade adventure series in progress, we decided that we have enough on our schedule without disrupting it further with strenuous night shifts.
My last nights in the hospital reminded me of the things I love about working as a nurse, and even about night shift. The aroma of coffee drifting down the hall at 2am. The darkened corridors and reduced staff. The instant trust most patients place in the nurse, even one they have never met before. The hope that sunrise brings on the dark horizon (especially that day shift will arrive soon).
In honor of my colleagues who carry on, at times with feet aching and brains fuzzy with sleep deprivation, I want to share an account from a shift not long ago, with details and names changed for privacy (if you think you know who this is, it’s almost certainly a sign that you don’t). First a word about the strangeness of the modern world.
Aren’t Medical Professionals Mostly Corrupt?
We live in a strange world now. People applaud the medical advice of beautiful extroverts on Instagram. They promote their own “research” on the internet (technically Googling isn’t research, although I have called it that too). Yet many ridicule someone who has studied medicine for many years and actually done real research. (I’m not speaking of myself; nurses don’t study medicine. They study nursing.)
I’m not at all against sharing great health tips among non-medical people. But if that Instagram star or internet researcher falls off a roof and impales an elbow on a metal stake, drinking vinegar or popping vitamins won’t prevent death from tetanus or sepsis. Even the noble B&W ointment (which I love) won’t return a fractured elbow to good working condition.
Is there corruption out there? I’m sure. Have I met corrupted doctors who are out to keep people from true health? In my work in heart surgery I interacted with dozens, maybe hundreds of doctors and I don’t think any of them fit that description. Perhaps some of them are motivated by avoiding lawsuits, but I just haven’t seen physicians who don’t want their patients to get well. Grouchy? Yes. Arrogant? Absolutely. Focused on their specialty rather than the whole person? Certainly. But I found myself amazed at how troubled physicians became when their patients were doing poorly. And how just plain brilliant most of them were.
In the last decade, I’ve seen nurses care for people who demand unreasonable attention and lots of Coke. I’ve listened to patients scream obscenities at medical professionals and storm away in their hospital gowns, leaving against medical advice. In the last decade, I’ve watched government mandates crack down on doctors and nurses, generally with good intent but even more paperwork. I’ve seen medical professionals exhausted and frustrated and hungry, knowing that they will catch only a few hours of sleep before returning for more punishment.
And I’ve seen amazing things happen, like that night I heard a shout across the hall.
The Man With the Broken Elbow
“Help! I need help in here!”
“Coming!” I raced across the nurses’ station, meeting the other nurse in the doorway to the room. Our assistant, the CNA, bent over a form slumped on the bed rail.
I had heard this patient chatting with the CNA moments before as the night shift began.
“Shall I get you a warm blanket for the night?” she had asked.
“Why yes, that sounds like a great idea,” he said. “Thank you.” Unlike some of the patients we care for who are garbled, drowsy, whiny, or desperately sick, this man was flat out nice and doing well. He had undergone surgery to repair a fractured elbow, and surely should have been discharged soon, hopefully in time to enjoy a burger for the fourth of July.
Now, seconds later, he was unresponsive.
and the medical people
While his primary nurse assessed the situation, I called the charge nurse. My message was brief; my tone of voice communicated more than the words.
“We need you over here now.”
“Okay.” She didn’t ask questions. I didn’t work with her much, but she understood me perfectly.
I hurried back into the room to see what I could do.
“What’s his name?” I asked the assistant.
I leaned over the slumped body, stuck my fingers in his hand and shouted.
“Tom! Tom! Squeeze my fingers!”
Nothing. His pulse continued to beat and his breath came in shuddering gasps.
A loud tone sounded across the hospital, summoning a team of experts to the bedside.
The Medical Professionals at the Bedside
As the emergency teams flowed into the room, crash carts clattering, and gloved hands snatched glass bottles and plastic syringes, I managed the phones. This is something I learned to do during my time in heart surgery. I paged the primary doctor, and handed the phone into the doctor in the room. It was he who the legend said had come to work his shift once with cerebrospinal fluid dripping from his own head. He was grouchy at times, but I can tell you one thing. When I’m the patient in the bed looking up at the faces around me, I don’t want a pretty Instagrammer. I want this doctor.
I heard the team performing CPR as I called the man’s wife.
Making the call
I took a deep breath. Likely, she had been up to visit her husband that day before and made plans for him to come home shortly. Maybe she was planning a picnic to celebrate both the upcoming holiday and his homecoming. Hot dogs, ketchup and mustard, maybe homemade relish? Maybe a trip to watch the fireworks with grandchildren?
“My name is Katrina, one of the nurses at the hospital. Are you Tom’s wife?”
“Yes, I am.” She controlled her voice, but I heard the slight wobble of suspense. The wobble said, as clear as words, “What’s wrong? Why are you calling me now?”
“I’m not Tom’s primary nurse. I’m just helping out, and I’m sorry to tell you we are having an emergency right now. He was fine – I heard him talking – and suddenly he slumped over.”
“What do you mean by emergency? Should I come up?”
“Yes, I would come up and then you can get the details. They’ll let you in by the emergency room.”
“Can you just tell me, did his heart stop?”
“Umm…” What to say without saying too much? Stick with the facts. “I can tell you that they are doing CPR.”
I didn’t tell her what I was thinking. CPR is an important skill. But unfortunately, once a person progresses to needing CPR, their odds are poor. I didn’t tell her about the banging metal of the crash cart drawers and the doctor calmly calling out orders. I didn’t say, I doubt he will be with you for the holiday. If he survives it will take weeks for him to recover from CPR and whatever massive thing just went wrong.
But I was thinking that.
While the emergency team continued to work, I attended the other patients on the floor. I didn’t see when they wheeled Tom out to critical care.
He was still alive, but that didn’t mean much. Machines can keep a person alive for awhile.
After the emergency
A few days later, I went back to the hospital. Maybe it was a week later. I was assigned to another floor as “helping hands.” I wasn’t very familiar with the floor, but I determined to answer call lights and beeping monitors with as much energy as I could summon. So, when a bathroom call light went off at the beginning of the shift, I strode in with a knock.
The patient had already sprung up off the toilet and was busily washing his hands. As I walked with him back to his chair, we chatted.
“Looks like you’ve had a surgery on your arm.”
“Yup. And another surgery to get blood clots out of my lungs.”
“Wait.” I stared at him. Surely not. “What’s your name?”
“What?! You aren’t the one who collapsed last Saturday on the 2nd floor!”
“That’s what they tell me! But I don’t remember anything.”
“I can’t believe–you’re doing so well! I didn’t know if you’d make it through that!”
“Did I fall on the floor?” He asked, genuinely curious.
“No. Just the bed. And I yelled your name as loud as I could –and you–there was nothing.”
Tears leaked into the man’s eyes and he reached for my hand.
I took his hand, but I knew I wasn’t the one he was thanking. I was just a part of the well-trained team of medical professionals who cheated a massive blood clot of its goal at a most inconvenient time of night.
Even as I take this break from working in the medical field, my thoughts will stray to my colleagues. I’ve mostly worked with medical professionals who have exceeded me in compassion and skill. I applaud them in their labors. I wish them fewer demanding patients and more rewarding moments like these. In addition, I know that even on the days that I am at home with my feet up, some of these colleagues will be up at the hospital, toiling on.