Something really weird happened over the holidays. It started with Thanksgiving. It was the week before finals and I had family in town, all staying in a tiny condo (that is undergoing renovations) and then I became bed bound by illness that lasted a couple of weeks. It was truly a stressful time.
Anyway. It specifically happened while I was visiting an old family friend for Thanksgiving lunch. The group at the table started talking about their cats (yes, the group consisted of single middle aged women; I love when stereotypes come alive) and how terrible it was when their “favorite furry friend” got kidney disease and died last year at the ripe age of 12. They literally talked about their cats and their ailments for a full 25 minutes.
I zoned out. I started thinking of a patient I had who was on CPAP, overweight, came from a nursing home with no family. She hadn’t eaten in a day (because she couldn’t feed herself & no one took the time to help her) and her skin was so dry & cracked it was peeling off her face. By the time I met with her that morning, she had been laying in her own pee for 4/5 hours. She was agitated, confused and crying. I worked with her all morning and by the time I left at the end of my shift, she was calm and genuinely thankful.
I left knowing that all the hard work I had put forth would be undone by the next person. The effort I gave that day was 200% above what nurses do for their patients because nurses aren’t afforded the time or resources to give one-on-one quality care the way a student can. I also left with full knowledge that she would die soon (and even if she didn’t, I knew she would go back to a neglectful, lonely existence at a nursing home; which fate is worse?). I had read her chart thoroughly and unlike the patient, the nurse knows the dirty secrets. We can put all the information together because we are “granted the gift” of knowledge. Ignorance is a luxury reserved for the patient.
The same thing happened at home when my boyfriend’s family started talking about little things. What they did last week. What they think about the new park being built across the street. Where they wanted to eat that night. And I realized suddenly I don’t know how to interact with people in the normal world anymore.
Nursing is an alternate reality. Every day you examine the balance of life and death and the effect it has on your own mortality. Heck, the very essence of human existence is called into question. And then you come home and talk to people about what to have for dinner. About their cats. About their f*cking favorite flavor of ice cream. And you think… WTF? Do any of you know what I’m doing? Can you comprehend the psychological toll of my daily experience?
I will have to continue to practice my communication efforts. Most of the time it’s damn exhausting. I work hard all day at the hospital then come home and have to work hard to function there too. What exactly is the problem, you might ask? Well, in my experience, three things happen when I try to talk to people about what my hospital day is really like.
- They have no idea how to talk about such serious issues and change the subject.
- They try to comfort me with good intentions (by perhaps relating my experience with their own, the ‘ol “oh yea, I know exactly how that feels…” tactic) but the only thing they end up communicating is their own ignorance.
- Sometimes people surprise me and even though they can’t know exactly how I feel, they are still able to relate and encourage me to share my feelings (which, lets face it, sometimes that’s all you’re looking for).
With the bad I am discovering the good as well. I am coming to find that living in an alternate reality isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, in many ways, it allows for more beautiful possibilities.