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by Kimberlain O'Driscoll, MBA, M.Ed 9 months ago in healing · updated 4 months ago
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A nurse remembers

I no longer work. I have become ill and am now permanently disabled. This happens a lot with nurses. That’s what I was, a nurse. I worked in the field for almost 40 years. Nurses are in the position to change the world one person at a time. And on occasion, if we are lucky the patients that we are blessed to work with change us as well. I can cite many examples, but one situation will always stand out.

My nursing career started when I served as a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman. It was my first day on the intensive care unit at the naval hospital I was stationed at. I had been working on the medical floor but was invited to transfer to the ICU. Prior to the shift on my first day, we were assigned our patients and given a report from the previous shift of their condition and any other information we needed. Little did I know, the man that I was to care for that day would forever change my life. For the sake of this story, and to maintain his privacy I will simply refer to him as Jack.

Jack had been a heavy drinker most of his life. He suffered from alcohol induced dementia. When I approached his bedside he spewed a barrage of vulgar profanity my way. He was also physically violent. A few months earlier, he managed to wrap IV tubing around my co-worker Susan's (not her real name), throat and tried to strangle her. Whenever I had to administer a treatment, I needed someone to distract him. Even though he was in restraints, if I wasn’t careful he would easily have punched, clawed or bitten me. That eight hour shift seemed to last forever. Needless to say I was emotionally shaken.

When I reported for work the following day, I was once again assigned to Jack. Apparently the charge nurse felt that assigning me to the most difficult patient in the unit would help prepare me for anything else. This time however, I knew what to expect. My shift was not easy, but I was better prepared than I was the previous day.

On the third day it was decided that I would be assigned to someone else to give me a break. They felt that two days with Jack was more than enough. My co-workers immediately began trying to pawn him off on each other. They talk about who worked with him the last time and each of them had one reason or another to not have him as their patient. The thought of someone caring for Jack who didn’t want him as their patient bothered me. Yes, he was very difficult to work with, but as I saw it he was still a human being and should be treated as one. As I look back I often wonder if I was simply naïve. I was only 19 years old at the time, and definitely idealistic. Perhaps it was a sense of responsibility. Whatever the reason, I found myself raising my hand and volunteering to care for Jack another day. This time, his insults and threats didn’t bother me. I had become accustomed to him.

Over the course of the next year, Jack would be a patient in the ICU from time to time. In each of those occasions I volunteered to take care of him. By now his comments were simply brushed off. I was able to focus on attending to his medical needs despite his combative actions. I became fond of him. I liked working with him. I was pretty sure I had all of Jack’s quirks and personality traits worked out. Then one night that all changed.

I was working the night shift. Jack was once again my patient. It was around 2 AM. My co-workers were eating dinner and I was at the nurses station by myself. As I was charting I heard Jack call my name. I didn’t think he knew my name. I approached his bedside very cautiously. I wondered if this was some form of a trap like when a cat tricks you into patting its belly just to get you close enough to bite you. I thought of the time he tried to choke Susan with the IV tubing. Was he setting me up? The next two minutes changed who I was as a nurse and who I would be as a human being.

In a clear voice I heard Jack say “Don’t talk, just listen. I don’t know how long I’ll be like this”. He went on to explain that he was fully aware of everything. He apologized to me for all of the horrible things he had called me, and for all the times he tried to hurt me. He said that it was like there were two of him. There was the him on the outside that was aggressive and hostile, in the him on the inside that was trying to stop it. He said that I was always nice to him and he was grateful. He asked me to pass along his apologies to the rest of the staff and tell them that he appreciated everything they were trying to do for him even though he couldn’t show it. After a couple of minutes, Jack’s moment of clarity was over. He slipped back into the state of dementia that I was very familiar with.

I tried to explain what happened to my co-workers. They were skeptical. I charted what happened as carefully as I could. Jack never swore at me again. He was never combative with me either. He was still very challenging for my coworkers, but somehow he and I had that brief connection and the Jack that I got to know during those few short moments reassured me that he was still there.

I applied what I learned from Jack whenever working with other patients with dementia. And yes, they were in there too.


About the author

Kimberlain O'Driscoll, MBA, M.Ed

My stories come to me in the form of vivid dreams. The challenge is in putting them to words. I'm medically retired, ride a Harley, and have five ferrets who keep me very entertained.

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