Some days I think I’ve reached that place in my career, my life, you know the one. The “back when I was young” stage. I feel like I’m not old enough to be there yet, but maybe I’m an old soul.
I remember sleepless nights leading to bright and early clinical shifts. Scared out of my mind, baby nurse, so worried I might not remember what a drug a patient was on was for, or that I would fold the sheet wrong. Someone along the way neglected to tell me that it wouldn’t take too long before I either knew where to look up drugs quickly and their purpose or they would become so familiar I wouldn’t need to think about it.
They didn’t tell I wouldn’t care too much about hospital sheets being folded correctly, although I worked night shift in the NICU long enough to care deeply that the baby bed linens and onesies matched as well as possible.
Nobody told me that in my first year of nursing I would spend a long night rocking and singing to a baby who had been beaten by those who were supposed to care for her and whether she cried for the pain or the separation I don’t know, but that night I held her. I don’t remember her name but more than 10 years later I can still feel the ache as I held her to my chest, the first layer of baby nurse peeled brutally away at the violation of the belief I so desperately wanted to cling to, that nobody would intentionally harm a baby.
I think most nurses remember their first. Their first patient that wrecked them. The one that broke their heart making them question why they thought this was a good career, all the while cementing that how could you do anything else when for this night, this baby was placed in my arms to be cared for? Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. I’ve always been told I feel things too deeply, have no boundaries. I’m oversensitive and emotional and just too much. I cry too easily.
So for years, I went from one to the next. A baby or a patient that would stick a little deeper. The ones that made me want to quit, but simultaneously reminded me why I stay.
There is a slide show of snippets, moments that will never leave me that pulled me deeper and deeper into the messy thing we call life and being the one whose job it is to sit with people through the darkest, but also some of the brightest moments, of their lives.
I have taken a baby away from a mother as she bleeds wondering if me taking her baby out of her arms will be her last memory before she dies. I have painstakingly laboured over making a perfect set of handprints from a baby born still far too early because it is the only memento mom wants.
I have gotten too close and too attached. I have cried over painful procedures because I’m causing the pain and once again I got too close.
I’ve never figured out how not to see myself in every mom, every parent of a sick child receiving awful news always remembering the many voices cautioning that you can’t get too involved, to have boundaries. I figured there must be something wrong with me because I couldn’t close my heart off to the pain, the heartbreak.
I carried with me the ones imprinted on my heart. I felt guilty because we weren’t supposed to. Everyone seemed to know the secret of how not to let those special patients worm their way into your heart, or the most heartbreaking ones crack it just a little.
Somewhere along the way, all the layers of baby nurse fully gone, I am the nurse who jokes about “how we used to do things” as if 12 years is a lifetime and my soul does feel old but somewhere along the line I gave up trying “not to take them home” with me, “not to get too attached” or “leaving work at work”. It was a losing battle anyway and I cried. Not always at the best of times but mostly when my work was done. I confessed my utter failure to separate my heart from my work. I talked about the pain and the tears and my secret grief.
And then, only then, did I realize I wasn’t alone.
Walk onto any pediatric floor, neonatal intensive care, labour and delivery and you will meet some of the best nurses. Not only are they competent and skilled but they bring kindness and compassion and caring to everything they do. They work tirelessly to provided expert care, all the while holding space for some of life’s most painful and dark moments. The loss of innocence. Life gone too soon. Pain and pokes to those who can’t even begin to understand why. The ones who scream and cry through everything done to them only to offer watery smiles after or snuggle deeply into the chest of the nurse whose heart is breaking over the work that must be done.
So back when “I was young” we may have folded perfect corners and researched patients with wide-eyed innocence, but now I wonder why we don’t prepare those baby nurses better for the pain to come. I want to tell them it will suck, it will hurt, you might cry, but it’s ok. It’s ok if you aren’t ok with babies dying and toddlers screaming in pain. It’s ok if a mother’s scream at finding out her baby is gone haunts your dreams. It’s ok because at some point we’ve all been there. It gets worse, and then it gets better. You can be “not ok” and still be a damn good nurse, because, well, let’s be honest…..we all want a nurse to take care of us who still give a damn.