As nurses, we tend to steel ourselves against showing our emotions, especially with patients and their families. So what happens when the “worst possible scenario” comes home to our own family?
Some years ago, my mother-in-law, a long-term diabetic, poorly controlled and with frequent exacerbations of atrial fibrillation, experienced chest pain the day after Thanksgiving. A cardiac catheterization revealed several blockages which could only be repaired with cardiac bypass surgery.
My husband and his siblings didn’t know just how unstable their mother had been for quite some time. I, on the other hand, had been blessed with her phone calls. I knew about the high blood sugar levels and “racing” heartbeats, but she never complained to anyone else. She also refused to call the doctor to report any of these events, no matter how much I begged, pleaded or threatened.
So it was not a terribly big surprise to me when, on the day of surgery, her surgeon finally emerged from the OR after 5-6 hours and began to explain just how big a mess he found with all of her vessels. (The fact that she came out of surgery on the aortic-assist balloon pump was also a pretty strong indicator.) As I listened, I knew he was doing his best to “soften” the bad news.
My husband’s family was in extreme shock. They thought Mama was going to have the surgery and be “all better.” None of them had any idea how unstable she had been for so long. In that moment, being the critical care nurse in the family was not a good thing.
The next five weeks were filled with the absolute hell of “anything that can go wrong…” as we see all too often in the ICU. Amputation of one leg by the end of the first post-op week, a tracheostomy and feeding tube, MRSA pneumonia, isolation…
Her sons took turns sitting at the hospital 24/7. They were emotional wrecks, unable to eat, sleep or go to work. They constantly called each other to report any changes, however small. At the end of that month, each had a cell phone bill greater than $900. It was hard to watch as they turned in on themselves instead of leaning on the rest of us.
We tried to celebrate Christmas in the middle of it all, for the sake of the kids. But not many of us had our minds on the tree, gifts or services that year. The one shining light through that dim holiday season, though, were the doctors, nurses and all others who were so wonderful through it all.
Finally, the day after New Year’s, the remaining leg became gangrenous. We withdrew the ventilator and stopped all meds, tests and feedings except for the comfort measures and pain relief in accordance with what we all agreed would have been her wishes.
And here I am today.
It took years for me to get over as much of the ordeal (as is ever possible). It was truly the kind of experience I would not wish on anyone. The strain and stress took its toll on my relationships and the holiday season is never quite the same.
Still, life goes on and I try to continue the journey one day at a time, for tomorrow is promised to no one. I lend my love and support to my family. I try to raise the children and grandchildren into responsible and caring adults. I try my best to remember: I must use my gifts and abilities for the good of others.
Keeping my mother-in-law’s spirit alive is surprisingly contained even in the seemingly mundane things: Frying chicken and cooking rice and gravy her way, keeping the recipe for her lemonade cake alive, reading to the children and putting her collection of The Night Before ChristmasÂ books out on top of her piano at Christmas every year.
These acts, big and small, are the finest way I know how to honor a loved one.
I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love (Mother Teresa).