The rooms in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit form a horseshoe around the desk where the nurses sit (as if there were time for that sort of thing).
From our perch, we take in the sounds and smells of the patients around us. We don’t hear the infectious laughter or wailing cries of once active toddlers, but instead soft lulls of assisted breathing and the mechanical chirps of cardiac monitors and other machines. Amid the cords and beeps are huddles of families, speaking in whispered voices around the beds in each room.
I believe in love the way I have come to believe in Dopamine, Lasix, and ventilators. I have learned a lot about medicine as a nurse, but I have learned more about the power of the human condition, in these cramped rooms full of machines and prayers.
For Noah it is cancer. He is two years old and perfect, like a cherub with rosy cheeks and a big round belly. His laughter is gone by the time we meet but I am told he was full of it, until recently. Noah’s family surrounds him with love. They welcome me to join them, and I do, investing myself fully. He fights, I fight, his family fights with hope and prayer, but this time cancer is stronger. It happened quickly, although it never actually feels that way.
His mother’s hands fell into my own as she said goodbye.
“How blessed I have been to have loved him.” She says, our hands intertwined.
Thankfully, it doesn’t always end this way. Henry is a baby. For months his family sits vigilantly by his side. One complication after another seems to threaten the hope they all hold onto, the laughter that continually flows through the room despite the challenges. They surround him with love. They welcome me to join them, and I do, investing myself fully. Henry fights, I fight and his family fights with hope and prayer. This time, we win the fight.
Again there is a goodbye, hands intertwined. Regardless of outcome, the love follows after them when they leave, but a piece of it stays with me as our stories go their separate ways again, forever changed by the moments we once shared together in this room.
As humans, there are so many things that we want and need. Stable vital signs, normal lab values, health, healing, and positive outcomes. But ultimately, love has to be enough. Because when reality crashes down around us, as I have learned it often will, love is the one choice we are left to make. It is the only comfort we are guaranteed, and the only outcome we can control. Love is eternal, beyond our terminal and often-flawed bodies.
Long after the lull of machines and chirp of monitors have ceased, love lives on. When my time with the family has ended, whether happy or sad, I never doubt that this love will sustain them. I have watched as it has sustained them here, within this room, for days, even weeks. I have seen their courage, their devotion to one another, devotion to love. I have watched as the strength of love sustained them through the lowest of lows, the fear, exhaustion, and sadness. I have seen its power and the way it buoys them during the happy moments, too.
And I take my own piece of that love home with me, at the end of a long and heavy day. What they may not know is that their love sustains me too. It fills me with hope and validation for the work I do. It carries me home and tomorrow it will pull me from my bed, back to the hospital for another day, where I will learn once again, that love is enough.