The Compassion of Nurses

As I lay in my hospital bed, the nurse came into my room looking unhappy. It was late at night, and I needed help. I don't recall what for, but the nurse was there to help me. Only recently, I had been moved to this room on the 8th floor of Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, the orthopaedic floor. Before that I had resided in ICU on the 4th floor for several weeks.

The nurse, a few years older than me with tanned skin and brown hair pulled back into a braid, started mumbling to herself, although I'm sure she wanted me to hear it. She complained that I was too needy, and she had other patients to take care of besides me.

Tears welled up in my eyes. I felt hurt and alone. And alone I was since I had no family or friends close by to visit me. They all lived on the mainland while I was a patient on this island far from home.

Soon, the tears began to roll down my cheeks. The nurse saw the tears, but didn't say a word, nor did I. As she left my hospital room, I thought to myself that I would need to stop asking for help so often. It wouldn't be easy, but I strove to be self-reliant again.

To be fair to myself and my circumstances, something I don't believe the nurse knew anything about, I had only been on that floor for maybe one full day. I had gone from an ICU room with one nurse dedicated to my every need to a room on a regular floor with nurses handling 3-4 other patients. Not only that, but I was unable to walk and had yet to start any physical or occupational therapy. I needed to adjust to my new circumstances.

I never saw that nurse again. I'm not sure if she was on that floor one day only or requested to never handle me as a patient again. She did not reflect my experience with most of the nurses I dealt with as I recovered from the injuries I sustained after my suicide attempt in September 1996.

When I remember that evening, I see her face clearly and the feelings I had in that moment: guilt, shame, and like a scolded child. To this day, I hesitate to ask for a nurse's help when I am a patient in a hospital because I worry that I will be considered a pest and needy. My experience with her was brief, but it stays with me. I wonder if she realizes how powerful and hurtful her words were. Now that I look back, I know that she could have handled the situation better and talked to me in a compassionate way.

Not all nurses at the hospital lacked compassion as that one did, though. During the seven weeks, I spent at Queens, I met many amazing nurses (and doctors) who showed me compassion. Some memories of my time there stand out.

At the time I was a patient, my hair was very long. I remember one nurse, I believe she had long red hair, coming into my room and French braiding my hair. The simple act brought a smile to my face. Even though she wasn't my nurse, she found time to help me.

Still other nurses enjoyed joking around with me. While a patient in ICU, I was intubated for 2-3 weeks. After the tubes were removed, I was unable to talk much less make a lot of sounds. The muscles in my throat had atrophied, making talking, much less swallowing, nearly impossible at first. As Queens Medical Center is a teaching hospital, doctors would come to check on me along with their students and interns. After they would leave, one nurse told me that the interns reminded him of a gaggle of geese. I smiled because his assessment was spot-on. He would make the sound of geese and encouraged me to do so as well. I couldn't at first, but I remember the day I finally managed. My nurse cheered and laughed.

There are two nurses that particularly stand out. They made a huge difference in my recovery. The first was a nurse about my age at the time. She had straight light brown hair. Every day, she would read the mail I received to me. One day, she rolled me in a wheelchair to a landing outside of the hospital. It was the first time I had been outside in weeks. It was a humid, rainy day, and it was perfect! As we sat outside, she read me my mail, mainly cards, as well as the Sunday cartoon page that my Aunt Carol sent me every week.

I celebrated my 25th birthday in ICU, 5 1/2 weeks after my suicide attempt. I hadn't mentioned that my birthday was coming up. I'm not sure why. That morning as my ICU nurse, the one who read me my mail, looked at my chart she noticed it was my birthday. She decided we needed to do something for my birthday to celebrate. Since I couldn't talk well and on a liquid diet, birthday cake was not an option. Instead my nurse arranged for me to have a strawberry malt, one of my favorite treats, that day. Not only that, but all the ICU nurses and aides who were available came into my room and sang "Happy Birthday" to me. I felt overwhelmed.

After I was a moved to the 8th floor, a few days after my birthday, I met another wonderful nurse. The moment I met her I felt like we had been friends for years. I'm sure that could be because she looked just like my college friend Kristi, but her attitude and approach to life mirrored her as well. She took the time to talk to me, joke around with me, and treat me like a friend. She knew I hated being alone (having no visitors will do that after a while) so she would put me in a wheelchair and roll me out to the nurses station so I could be around people. Then, she'd bring me magazines to look through and read. One day, she came in my room and tossed me a bag. It had a new Cosmopolitan and a few other things she had bought for me on her way to work.

While I will never forget how one bitter nurse, who came in my room to help me that night, treated me, I will also never forget the nurses who showed me love and compassion every day. Their compassion helped me heal, not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. Their actions encouraged me to get stronger and want to do more for myself, more so than any negative word ever did.

Since it has been over 18 years since I was at Queens, I doubt any of the nurses are still there, but one day i would love to go to Hawaii again and visit the ICU and orthopaedic wings to thank the staff there for all that they do and the compassion the show their patients. Compassion has the power to heal and encourage. I know. The compassion of nurses made a huge difference in my life and my healing.

This post originally appeared on Adventures of a Jayhawk Mommy.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.