Essay for Spring 2020 Issue of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine

My essay, Best Brother, published in the Spring 2020 issue of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, tells the story of a long-time family friend who suffered a severe spinal cord injury last summer and, like so many of our patients and families, was faced with sudden life-altering decisions in the ICU. But with a fully paralyzed body, a breathing tube down his throat, and a mind completely intact, how could he participate in any of those decisions?

The way his story unfolded was extraordinary. I never in my life would’ve seen it coming, the way he and his family found their way. It speaks a lot to the care from the medical staff as well, and what efforts they must have made to ensure his wishes were honored.

You can read the essay here.

you can find me here

In true introvert fashion, I needed to jot my thoughts down before a phone interview of sorts so that I wouldn’t stumble so much over on-the-spot questions. A contributor to the newsletter for the hospital where I work had emailed me, asking if she could talk with me about how my interests in writing and photography help me relieve my work-related stress. Here are my thoughts, on writing at least. They echo some sentiments I’ve expressed in previous posts.

As an introvert who loves quiet days more than gold, I find it somewhat ironic that I work in a profession that involves constant and often competing interactions with people for 12 straight hours in my normal work day. This, in a typically high-energy, noisy, stressful environment.  I am listening to everyone else’s story, processing all that I am taking in, and making decisions based on all of the external feedback I am receiving. My mind is in overload, but it’s about everything and everyone else. I know I’m stressed but I also know there are many, many more layers to that stress than simply being very, very busy.

Writing is the space I have to untangle my own thoughts, before they entangle me to the point where I start acting out without knowing what’s going on inside me. It is the space for me to identify my emotions: Anger at the injustice of child abuse? Anger at the person who spoke too sharply to me, when I was only trying to do my job? Frustrations with an imperfect healthcare system? Sadness for a child? Confusion about the reasons for such suffering?  It is the space for my own voice, after I have left the hospital, and all the other voices and alarms and sounds from my work slowly dissipate. Writing is also the place for me to express the hard things I feel at work, the things people honestly don’t always want to hear about in an in-person conversation. Sometimes they’re too hard, too uncomfortable, and frankly too morbid to verbally share or hear. But in writing, I can give voice to these things in a way that won’t bring a conversation to an awkward silence, thus freeing my reader of the pressure to find the “right” response, and freeing myself of some of the sadness I feel that I should probably change the subject now…even though the subject affects and shapes so much of me. For one who is constantly meshed with others’ stories, and often highly complicated ones at that, writing is the place where I can pull myself out and tell my own story, recollecting, growing and protecting my sense of self. You and I, we can find me here.

A Strange Gift

Warning: This post is a bit on the heavier side, especially compared to the silliness of my recent conversations with Siri.

Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever done post-mortem care on a little patient, minus the partial experience I had as a nursing student a few years ago. Surreal hardly begins to describe the experience, from cleaning up a messy room that bears witness to the intense activity involved in coding a patient, to making eye contact with parents who are absolutely raw with grief, to bathing the patient in order to restore some small sense of dignity, to wrapping the patient with a shroud and bringing the patient to the hospital morgue.

Surreal. But it is part of my world. Our world, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

I was drawn to ICU nursing because I have a strong appreciation for the depth of issues that we face there, and I see it as an incredibly precious time to be a support for not only the patient but their grieving family members as well, particularly when we are dealing with end-of-life care.

But the weight of it all is substantial. The quiet entrance into a room full of grieving family members is the entrance into a space that has just suffered the most violent of all emotional earthquakes, looking for a foundation, is there one left? A space full of disappointment beyond measure but sometimes also hope, anger but sometimes also peace, and exhaustion… always exhaustion. After all, it takes everything you have and everything you are to say good-bye to the heart of your own heart. It takes all your being to search for light in a very dark place. This is the space that I entered as a nurse yesterday. What could I bring? What could I bring, and would it change anything in this space?

I could bring juice and crackers to parents who have thought very little of their own needs for hours, days, weeks, months, years.

I could clean up the room, quietly, gently, respectfully. There are some parts of saying good-bye that you just don’t need to remember, especially in an ICU. I could reduce the sense of chaos in some small way. I wanted such a clean room for them.

I could bring silence. Of course if they had questions, I would do my best to answer. But in terms of consolation for newly grieving parents, I am convinced that less is more. Maybe I say this out of my own lack of tolerance for pat answers. The movement towards resolution with our suffering is simply not as neatly packaged and bow-tied as some might have us think, and I am convinced we need to learn how to get more comfortable with being really uncomfortable in the gray areas – even as people of faith. I am convinced that the gift of silence to a grieving family is the recognition that they have now been thrust into an extremely uncomfortable, gray area, where they will likely stay for a very long time. Trying to move them out of it with premature clichés is counterproductive and potentially very hurtful.

I was so thankful for the accompaniment of an incredibly tender-hearted, skilled social worker who truly bore the brunt of the family’s grief yesterday. I told her how thankful I was that she was there, and that she did what she did so well. Her response was inspiring, sober, and honest. “Some of us are just gifted for this. And it’s a strange gift to have.” I am not an expert. I am awkward and new and scared as a young nurse facing these kinds of big issues. But by the grace of God, I believe I am gifted and called to this work. And I could not agree more. It is a strange gift to have, but it is mine, and it is what I have to offer.