Everyone experiences loss at some point in life. Yet in a hospital, particularly a neonatal intensive care unit, losses are part of the daily fabric. Some are small, while others are huge. Examples include the loss of relationships as people change jobs; loss of a childhood not realized; loss of a dream; and sometimes, loss of a life. And every day, doing their job, bearing witness to loss, trying to forestall loss, and propping up families who suffer loss, are nurses.
I’ve been a physician now for 28 years. When I was in training, I was oblivious to the impact and importance nurses played, both in my education, and in the lives of our shared patients. My focus was on learning the tasks of being a doctor, rounding on patients, writing orders and notes, and making sound decisions. Meanwhile, all around me, the team of nurses executed an entire well-run, complex dance that is required to take care of each patient.
And then I got to know these people, nurses, who profoundly impacted my life. Their words of wisdom and encouragement I still hear after more than 20 years. Early on in my career, I was at a delivery for a baby with a complex congenital malformation which would require a complicated resuscitation. My nurse colleague said the words that still ring in my ears, “you should know, that very few times in your life does everyone in the room want you to be successful, but this is one of them.” I think about those words every time I’m facing a difficult medical case or challenge.
I remember other nurses who gently prodded me out of my state of shock and into running a code in the middle of the night, after I arose from a deep sleep and ran down two flights of stairs to a room full of people and a child in full cardiac arrest. Nurses who gently, and sometimes not so gently, questioned my judgment or medication choice, when they recognized that they might recognize a better option. Nurses who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me while we worked desperately to save a dying baby. But the last 18 months have taken my decades of appreciation of the nursing profession to a whole new level.
In the last 18 months my nursing colleagues have demonstrated their true virtues: courage, honesty, and justice. Most people think empathy, communication skills, critical thinking, and technical professionalism are what defines a “good nurse”. But I would argue that virtues outweigh skills. Strength in the face of pain or grief, truthfulness and straightforwardness, and a concern for peace and genuine respect for people, are what I have witnessed at a level I never quite knew was possible.
Eighteen months ago, the medical microcosm where I worked was turned upside down. From a world of certainty came uncertainty. Deep relationships forged over years of side-by-side care, through all hours of the night and day, through medical and social dramas not understandable to anyone outside of an NICU, were tested. New relationships were forced upon reluctant staff, both within my old and my new microcosms. Yet through it all, the nurses did their job. Despite grieving for the comfort and certainty of the past, the nurses attended to lab orders and medications, IV pumps and feeding tubes, and cared for babies and their families. They were truthful in relaying concerns about changes to their superiors, and they were unwavering in their efforts to make sure they continued to be respected for their essential role in the care of their patients. Many people have yet to be impacted by the life-changing power of a single nurse. Thankfully, I am not one of them.
We all know honoring nurses for one week in May isn’t nearly enough. However, I will take this opportunity to share what is in my heart. The experience of working alongside nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit has been one of the most meaningful and profound privileges of my life. Thank you all for your insight and inspiration.
Sincerely - Dr. Jeanne Mrozek