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What You May Not See When You Look at Your Nurse

Nurses perform their duties with a smile, with an air of efficiency, and often what seems to be an indifference. You will not see their calm expression falter even as the feces hits the fan. You might see them stoic while you cry, or even laughing later in the hall.
09/11/2015 08:29am ET | Updated September 11, 2016
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Over the years of taking care of patients it's become clear to me that the general public will only see their nurse at face value. What I mean is they will only see the surface of the woman or man standing at their bedside and will be unable to glimpse below the smooth surface staring back at them. In fact, they likely won't even think about the fact that there's more than meets the eye as far as their caregiver is concerned.

I recently found myself caring for a very sick woman. Her surgical recovery was complicated by her numerous chronic conditions. She was sedated, ventilated, and had a vast array of IV medications being titrated up and down to achieve the desired effect for her maximum benefit.

She had an abundant amount of tubes and wires coming out and coursing across her body, and the various beeps, pings, and frightening alarms vibrated through the otherwise silent critical care room where she lay hoping for healing. Her daughter stood at the bedside as I hurried here and there attending to various tasks.

We had spoken often over the past two days, the daughter of the patient and I, and she had been apprised of her mom's guarded condition. As we both stood sentinel the alarms made a few urgent screams and I adjusted medications and different settings to calm the situation.

I was keenly aware of the rising anxiety level of the present daughter, and hoping to offer her assurance I told her not to worry. "It's okay. These sorts of things happen fairly often after surgery, and we're used to seeing them."

Rather than the calm I had hoped for, the daughter instead turned towards me angrily and responded, "How would you feel if it was your mom in that bed?! You have no idea! You'd be worried too!"

I understood. Stress of illness made people's tempers flare, and I knew there wasn't much I could say to rectify the situation. I simply apologized and walked away, giving her the time alone she needed.

I had said, "I'm sorry." I had not vocalized the words that rang loudly in my head. The words I thought were the ones of a grieving daughter still, and as I walked away they resounded in my mind. I wish that was my mom in that bed! I do know how you feel! But I didn't say those things.

Nurses perform their duties with a smile, with an air of efficiency, and often what seems to be an indifference. You will not see their calm expression falter even as the feces hits the fan. You might see them stoic while you cry, or even laughing later in the hall.

You won't see what's underneath that seamless smile. You won't see the reality of heartache, grief, and emotional loss that your nurse is experiencing right along with you. I think this is because if we let it out, we might never be able to reel it back in, and our skills would suffer under the strain of too much flow of feelings.

Instead of tears you see singing. You will never know that when I see your mother in the bed I think of my own, and I miss her terribly. As I watch you hold your mother's hand my grief is reopened like a poorly healing wound.

Nurses experience their own loss, but in the quest to help you with yours, you will likely never know.

Nurses have their own skeletons in their own closets. Most of us have an alcoholic family member or someone suffering through another form of addiction. So know that we're not judging, as we've been there too.

We're personally touched by trauma, chronic illness, and sexual abuse. We've lost someone we once held so dear, and can now only remember in our hearts. We have stood where you now stand, and though you may never know, we understand.

Your nurse is not just a worker, and while she is deeply committed to her task, it means so much more than that to her, and she is so much more than what you see.

Your nurse is a daughter or a son, a mother or a father, a husband or a wife. Your nurse is a victim of loss, but has also seen victory over death. Your nurse has been a patient, even if not always the epitome of patience.

All I ask when you see me at the bedside is that you try and remember that there's more to me than meets the eye. So much more than you'll ever see.