Stories you can’t tell
There are stories you can’t tell.
As nurses, there are a lot of stories we can’t tell because of confidentiality regulations around patient privacy. Powerful stories. Stories about being human. Stories about pain and love and joy. About this shared life we all live. Stories that simultaneously destroy and renew our faith in the people around us.
Nurses stand with people at their best, and at their worst. And, maybe more than any other profession, our job is to stand open-hearted.
Share your pain with me. Share your joy with me.
I sit quietly at the edge of the circle of chairs, the nurse, part of the group, but aside. We are talking about support. In the center of the circle, a man stands.
“You have a lot of problems, right?” the counselor says.
She tosses a balloon in the air. “This is one of your problems – keep it in the air.”
And he does, for a while. But eventually the balloon bounces wildly and hits the floor.
We all laugh.
“Ok,” she says. “Now find a friend.”
Another person joins the man in the center of the circle. The counselor tosses two balloons, and then a third. Again, they eventually hit the ground.
Then we all stand.
The counselor tosses ten balloons in the air, and we keep them airborne, laughing together.
“See?” she says. “See what you can do with your problems when you have support?”
The man smiles and nods.
The analogy strikes me, and I think about it for a moment. About the people in my life who are my pillars of strength. Family and friends. A support network that picks me up from the ground when I fall, shattered, and helps put me back together again.
Some people do not have that luxury.
After a moment, we all sit down again.
“Now, we’re going to sing,” the counselor says.
She passes out the lyrics to Bill Withers’ Lean On Me, and powers on her Bluetooth speaker. The music starts, and for a moment I am paralyzed… awkward… alone. My insecurity rushes in and I panic silently, eyes downcast.
And then, the music starts and 15 voices ring out.
Just call on me brother, when you need a hand…
I get goosebumps.
I join my voice with theirs, and we sing together.
His voice cries out, loudly. Painfully. Piercingly. It strikes me deep in my chest, and for a moment I want to run, but I can’t move.
I am not sure I have ever heard anguish like that.
Over and over, he calls out, begging the pain to go, voice gravely from overuse. In his cries you can hear his anger and frustration. The endless torture by demons he can’t drown out.
And that is the reality of his life.
CODE RED! CODE RED! CODE RED!
I duck against the wall, heart pounding, as two large men rush down the hallway past me.
In the distance, a woman screams. I catch eyes with the nurse standing next to me, and the woman’s pain is reflected in her eyes. “Oh nooo…” the nurse breathes, sadly.
A flurry of movement at my back and I duck out of the way again as two more men rush past, grabbing a stretcher from the wall. The screams echo hauntingly down the dim hallway, briefly louder as the men open the door to the room ahead, and then muffled. Faintly, you can hear other staff talking to the patient. Trying to calm her down.
But the screams continue; she is unable to shake the horror of a past that haunts her. Over and over again, she relives the moment that tore her mind in half. His breath, on the nape of her neck. His hands, on her body. His weight, holding her down. She, a child.
The nurse and I stand quietly, hovering beyond the door.
Eventually, the woman quiets.
And the day continues on.
People really are just people, you know. We all want the same things. A chance to live life with dignity, a chance for love, safety, and human connection.
It is easy to forget that, even for us nurses. We are not immune to stigma, and the day-to-day of it all can make you numb.
More pain. More joy. More of the same.
But today, I sat with a patient. The patient suffers from mental illness; I can’t say more than that. But today, I sat with that patient for an hour and we talked. At first, the same dumb questions I have asked a billion times. How are you today? Isn’t this weather nice?
But then, somehow, we started talking for real. It surprised me that we had so much in common, honestly.
We talked about Star Trek and old Humphrey Bogart movies. Our love for Epcott at Disneyland, and family vacations. We talked about aviation. I now know more about propeller jets than I ever thought I would. It reminded me of sitting around with one of my dad’s old timer friends, and talking about the days gone by.
For an hour, we laughed, a lot.
The patient laughed, a lot.
For an hour, the patient was really there.
When I stood to leave, I did so a bit sadly. I will never forget the way the sunlight streamed into the room we were in, and the way the patient rested their chin on their hand happily, smiling. I was struck by the fact that people are just people, and that we all really are the same.
As I walked to the door, another patient approached me.
“Can I talk to you a moment?” the patient asked.
I smiled, and said of course.
“I just want you to know… that person is in so much pain. So much pain… every morning, you hear it. Just… pain. And you made them laugh,” the patient looked up at me with big, open, trusting eyes.
“I have never heard them laugh before.”
What do nurses do, really? people ask. You administer meds and take vitals, right?
Nursing, as a profession, is so much more than that.
And we can’t tell you.
And boy, do we wish we could tell those stories.
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