We said goodbye to my mother for the last time on an otherwise beautiful, sunny Friday morning in March. She had suffered a massive stroke on the previous Monday, and we watched her slip away day by day. But this isn’t really about that, or even about Mother’s Day. This is about nurses and the job they do, since this is National Nurses Week, which ends Monday, the birthday of Florence Nightingale.
Since that day in March, I’ve toyed with writing about the relationship between nurses and the families of patients near death. It’s a delicate topic and maybe too personal for some, but the nurses deserve it. And there’s a news hook too: I’ve gone through the same experience at The Westerly Hospital, where my father died last April and at L+M, the new owner of The Westerly Hospital, where my mother died. At both facilities, the care and compassion was impressive, despite the upheavals both have gone through in the past few years.
Very soon after my mother’s last breath, the nurse came back to the room with three boxes covered in soft purple fabric. She asked if we would like prints of my mother’s hand. She delicately lifted my mother’s left hand and gently pressed it onto each of three rectangles of clay. She asked if we needed anything and then left us alone again.
We had been in the room for most of that week and we knew what was in store. In her final act, my mother had allowed us to make the transition gradually over those few days into the huge void she would leave. And during that time we met several nurses and aides. For some reason, as we were going through this intensely personal time, it occurred to me that a nurse’s work day is quite different than the average worker’s day.
She had just shared an incredibly personal moment with us and now she was off to tend to her other patients and their families. She undoubtedly had a schedule to keep for those patients. Maybe a co-worker was out sick and she was covering more patients than normal. Maybe another family was pressuring her for information or demanding to talk to a doctor. Maybe her mind was really on issues in her own life. When she was with us, however, we felt as though we were her only concern. That’s quite a balancing act.
It’s easy to think our job is the most stressful or the most underappreciated or the most complex for any number of reasons. But consider a nurse’s day. Their deadlines concern a person’s health, and in extreme cases it’s a life-or-death deadline. They are skilled workers and the best of them are able to demonstrate that skill under pressure while showing compassion for the patient and their family. Many of them work odd hours, on weekends and holidays, through hurricanes and snowstorms and through extended shifts. Yes, there is good money in it for the highly skilled, but it is also, for most, a calling, and conditions can be most unpleasant at times.
At both facilities, we were treated with kindness, respect for my parents’ wishes and compassion for all of us. As it turned out, both hospitals were in the news during the course of my parents’ passings, but no one we met at either site let the stress of those headlines surface in the rooms.
Nurses are on 24/7, even on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. So thank the next nurse you see, regardless of whether you know her — or him — even if it isn’t National Nurses Week.
David Tranchida is the editor of The Westerly Sun.