The addicted nurse

Catherine and I were nurses together in the intensive care unit. During our long, 12-hour night shifts, we often worked side by side. I liked Catherine, and we’d talk all night.
Catherine was just back from maternity leave after her second baby. We’d take our breaks together. I teased her that we were on the same schedule: I’d take my cigarette break while she used the breast pump. Actually, I envied the purity of her pumping sessions as I snuck out to feed my addiction. If I mentioned it, Catherine would laugh quietly. “We’ve all got something,” she’d say.

Catherine’s friendly smile and bright blue eyes seemed to reflect a peaceful, happy life. She loved her kids and adored her husband. Out came the little picture book every chance she had.

Catherine was also an excellent nurse. Her patients were scrupulously cared for, and no detail escaped her attention. She was compassionate and took well-deserved pride in her work. I was inspired by Catherine’s devotion to the profession we both loved so much.

Catherine died one night at home after an IV overdose of a potent narcotic that stopped her breathing. It’s not the first time that a nurse — or a doctor — has died suddenly from a previously undetected addiction.

I believe that Catherine’s apparently “sudden” death was in fact a slow painful demise as she finally lost a terrible battle. Something had brought her to a dark place, and her addiction kept her there. I can imagine her internal conflict as she stole the drug, as she shot it in secret, as she dragged her baby into her own hell with her own drug-laden breast milk. I can imagine how lonely it was to carry a burden like that. The real misery of her seemingly perfect life is only achingly clear to me now.

As nurses, we lost one of our own in Catherine. We never want to lose a good nurse like that. As people, we lost one of our own — and I’m guessing we missed some opportunities to be people together and maybe to have seen what Catherine couldn’t show us.

In sharing this story, I believe I can speak to someone who is where Catherine was: Someone who is valuable, who is worthwhile, and who is loved. I believe that in one moment of admirable strength, the chains and silence can be broken, if even with only a whisper that says, “I need some help.”

If you are Catherine, reach. I believe that if I look hard, listen carefully and extend a hand of compassion and hope. I may reach one person like her. And I believe that this can happen one less time.

“A Moment of Admirable Strength,” Copyright © 2005 by Tiesha Johnson, BSN,RN. Part of the This I Believe Essay Collection found at, Copyright © 2005-2009, This I Believe, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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