Thoughts from a Pediatric ICU Nurse
Got this sweet tat at work from one of my patients. Sometimes, there are the little things that remind me that my job is worth the heart and soul I put into it- that all PICU nurses I know put into their jobs. Don’t get me wrong- I don’t hate my job. It is not terribly sad and depressing; although I have been through times where that has been the case. I love being a nurse- most of the time. I would be lying if I said I loved, or even liked, all the extra jobs that go along with it. No one tells you this stuff in school- that you won’t just be a nurse, but you’ll also often function as a therapist, social worker, babysitter, emotional punching bag, and waitress…emphasis on the waitress.
Every nurse I know appreciates the little things- like this sweet tat. It’s special, because the child that drew it on me is a miracle. The child is a reminder of the little things. Of an entire unit of healthcare professionals working tirelessly around the clock to care for her, and her coming out better. Not necessarily the same, but better, despite every odd.
There is a moment that hits you when you’re taking care of someone’s kid, and the possibility that they die, despite everyone’s best efforts, hits you. Like really hits you. It’s sort of an unspoken rule that as an ICU nurse, you numb that. You turn those feelings off- the attachment, the empathy, the reality- because you have a job to do. And so, we all go about our jobs. Often times, I feel like a robot. There’s a saying: “There’s no crying in the PICU,” and although it’s kind of a joke- it’s not.
Over the years, I have learned to strip away that armor. Carefully and cautiously, and a tiny tiny bit at a time. I sometimes wonder to myself who made that unspoken rule. The unspoken rule that the nurse has to conceal their emotions; that I’m weak if I cry; that I am to be the unshaken rock in the storm. Don’t get me wrong, that absolutely serves a purpose. It is part of my job, and no matter what my emotions are, my priority is always, always patient and family care. That often means being just that- the rock. So we go about our jobs, carefully tucking away the trauma and heartbreak we see.
Handing a mother her dying baby.
Giving the last doses of medication before life support is withdrawn- on someone’s child.
Asking parents which funeral home they prefer.
Standing there as a family is told their child’s condition has a 100% mortality rate, and staying when the doctor walks out.
Having parents ask me in desperation, “What would YOU do if you were me,” which to this day remains the hardest question I have ever been asked.
Holding hands with my co-workers while a chaplain baptizes a child who is going to die.
Bathing a child and doing handprints on them before wrapping the body in a shroud, which is really just a fancy word for body bag.
Taking someone’s sweet, innocent light of their life to the hospital morgue, and leaving them there.
Going home that night, grieving, but unable to even comprehend what the child’s family is feeling. My sadness pales in comparison.
Coming back to work the next day and seeing the empty room of a patient who died the day before.
This work we do- it wounds us. Maybe I am too empathetic, too soft, too sensitive. Maybe my heart isn’t strong enough, because it’s been broken time and time again by these kids. I suck it up- we all do. I am ok- this is my job. This is what I am good at. This is what I know how to do. This is what I have been called to do, and I wouldn’t take a single one of those moments back. No matter how hard they are, it is a privilege to walk along side a child and family during their journey- wether it be through death or through recovery. The tattoo my sweet patient drew on my arm today reminds me of hope. It reminds me that despite all the dark, there is light. It reminds me that there are absolutely miracles; because this child I am laughing and playing with wasn’t supposed to have a chance. It reminds me that although I have seen death and destruction, I have also seen God’s incredible grace and mercy in a way that only a PICU nurse can.
I get to see God every day in my kids. Even on the days that are less than ideal- when doctors are yelling at me, when my patient bites me, & when I get off work 2 hours late because shit hits the fan. The beauty is there- so often only in the little things. Like sassy girls whose favorite color is pink, and weren’t supposed to walk again, getting excited when you paint her nails. Like the teenager who you said goodbye to, who comes back and visits, telling the nurses they are like family to him for saving his life. Like the little girl whose mom sends you an invitation to her birthday party every year- you took care of her baby for nine months, and now she is turning five. Like the family that stops by the unit to leave the nurses chocolate for Christmas, and their kid is glowing with health- a year ago you admitted him when he was grey and almost pulseless. Like the family that hugs you and thanks you, even though you were the one who gave their dying child their last dose of pain medication before life support is removed. It’s not right- but it is beautiful in only a way a nurse can learn to see.