She wasn’t just any patient. Annie was one of “those patients.”
She was one of those special patients whose name I will never forget, and whose smile will forever be embedded in my memory!
Indeed, my patient “Annie” and her sister helped change not only the way I “see” those I care for in a 12-hour shift, but the way I see people in general. She had no idea she did this for me, and I don’t believe her sister did either.
You see, Annie was an adult special needs woman, and her sister never left her side for very long. Patty had cared for her for several years, and she was easily comforted just seeing her nearby. And Patty was always close, available to hold her hand when she was frightened, knew just how to caress the side of her face to provide reassurance and comfort, and always promised that everything was going to be okay. And sweet, innocent, simple, darling Annie believed her. It was so precious to watch the two of them interact.
Over the course of my 3 days caring for her, I had developed a trusting relationship with Annie’s sister Patty. That did a couple of things – It allowed Patty to return home to shower and take care of her family, and it allowed me time to provide extra-special bedside care to Annie. I was able to hold her hand and comfort her in Patty’s absence. I was able to stroke the side of her face in reassurance while she was away. I was able to promise Annie that her sister would in fact, be back soon. And I knew she would. I was able to see pure, genuine love in the soft smile that came from Annie’s face – As if, perhaps, she was trying to reassure ME!
Nursing school doesn’t teach you how to hold someone’s hand, or how to stop every single thing you are doing to simply get up close to the face of a frightened young woman on life support and let her see that you really do care about her. They don’t teach you how to show your patient that right now, THEY are the most important thing to you, and so is taking care of their pain, fluffing their pillow, getting their legs shifted just right, or to reassure them that you will, in fact, be right back. And in nursing school, they don’t teach you to say a little prayer with them.
Some things, only a patient can teach you. And there are other things only a patient and her sister can teach you.
Annie had terminal cancer. I knew she was going to die, and so did Patty. They had shared a lifetime of memories only sisters can make, and now Patty had to tell her sister goodbye. Patty reassured Annie. I reassured Patty. And as Patty stood bedside weeping while telling Annie goodbye, Annie reached over and caressed the side of her older sister’s face, took her hand, and held it to comfort her sister who had for so many years taken care of her. Roles reversed – Annie was now looking at Patty in reassurance that everything was, in fact, going to be okay.
Fast forward a few years to this morning…………….
I was unusually tired today. I had a CRAZY busy day working a 12-plus hour shift yesterday in my new gig in the Hemodialysis unit. Yes, gone are the days when I get to spend 12 hours bedside with special ones like Annie. Now, it’s a quick 3-hour run of dialysis, and onto the next patient. It often feels like an assembly line, and I find myself missing the intimacy and closeness I would share with my ICU patients, and yes, sometimes even their families.
As I rushed (late) out the door this morning, I realized I had forgotten to put perfume on. (I never leave the house without it!) Instead, I quickly peeked in the cabinet in the bathroom by our front door, and there was the bottle of “HAPPY” perfume that Annie’s sister Patty had given me. In that moment, remembering Annie and Patty, I simply stopped and smiled.
I’ll never forget the day I lost my patient.
Patty returned to the hospital with a small box. She pulled me out into the hallway and through her tears she told me that she had looked for something special to give me. She looked all over her house, she said, and could find nothing to give me to thank me for caring for Annie in her last days. Then, she said she found an old bottle of “HAPPY” perfume, and thought it was perfect. She said, “Rita, you made my sister happy. And you made me happy. I know it’s only a half of a bottle, but when I saw it, I thought it was perfect.”
Patty, I saved that bottle. I still have it. And every time I open my cabinet and see it, I remember the genuine love you shared with your sister Annie. I remember her pure, innocent sweetness, and the way that she comforted you before she took what would be her final breaths. I remember that it’s the little things we do for our patients that are truly the most meaningful. And each time I hold the hand of a patient I’m introducing myself to, I remember your sweet sister, and the way she comforted you.
I don’t get to spend long 12-hour shifts, or several days in a row caring for patients and their families I will get to know very well anymore. Instead, I get several 3-hour shifts per day with many patients. And THAT means, I get to hold a lot more hands. I think I like it 😉
In fact, I think it makes me HAPPY!