A JOURNEY OF HEALING
On a sunny July day, my younger brother Terry was killed as he attempted to cut down a tree. He died instantly of traumatic head injury. In the blink of an eye, I no longer had a brother. He wouldn’t be in my life to tease me, give me advice, or to make me laugh. He was just gone, leaving a huge hole in all our hearts. The pain was unbearable.
As I grieved, I found I wanted to pay tribute to my brother’s life. At the age of 14, I announced to my parents that I wanted to be a nurse. As I grew up that goal got pushed aside, I got married and had children. I prayed that somehow I could find a way to go back to school to realize my dream of being a nurse. My husband and children were very supportive and we all prayed that God would show us the way...and he did.
I enrolled in nursing school, achieved good grades and made Dean’s List. In my Junior year, I began carpooling with Jeanne, one of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) instructors. Driving fifty miles a day, we shared confidences and family stories. She became a mentor and a friend. I explained how Terry’s death affected my decision to return to school and how fragile I was just thinking about treating a traumatic head injury patient. She listened intently and seemed sympathetic.
The day before our senior year ICU clinical experience, Jeanne, my mentor and car pool friend, assigned me a traumatic head injury patient. I was in shock and disbelief. I prayed silently for help. I could not let my emotional, personal experience interfere with giving this patient the best care possible.
Upon entering the ICU, I learned that my patient was in surgery, having his second operation to relieve pressure from a blood clot on his brain. The doctors had given him little chance of survival. Terry had no chance at all, but this guy does, I thought. He’s still here, fighting for his life, and I’m going to do everything in my power to help him. I prayed for my patient and his family in the waiting room.
That afternoon and evening I studied the patient’s chart. His name was Sam, he was nineteen years old, the youngest child of a large close knit family and his accident was eerily similar to Terry’s. He worked for a tree-trimming company and while strapped in his safety harness perched in the tree to trim branches, he was hit in the head by a falling branch. He hung upside-down in the tree for nearly an hour before being extricated. He suffered a fractured skull with a large blood clot on his brain. A device was in place to relieve and measure the pressure inside his skull. A ventilator helped him breathe, he had arterial lines, IV’s and a urinary catheter. He had been given The Last Rites. Twice.
The next day, just after dawn, I saw Sam for the first time. His head was swathed in bandages, he was unresponsive and motionless. His tall frame completely filled the length of the bed, no sign of awareness in that young body.
My knees were weak, but I knew every detail about his physical condition, medications, procedures and his monitors. In ICU, the details can mean the difference between life and death. I can do this, I said to myself. All my hard work to this point comes down to this day and this patient. I laid my hand on Sam’s arm. “Good Morning Sam. I’m your nurse for today, my name is Nancy.” I told him the day of the week, the date, the time, what the weather was like. I chattered on while gently caring for him. There was no response. After morning care and charting I took time to speak to his family.
Out in the waiting room, I approached a tired-looking woman and introduced myself to Sam’s mother. She told me all about Sam and the family. I asked her to join me in a plan to stimulate her son and, hopefully, lighten his coma. I asked her to bring in a radio to play his favorite music and family pictures to tape in easy-to-spot places around his cubicle. I shared my nursing care plan with her and she felt included. This plan was also a prayer. Sam’s mother had a glimmer of hope and was pleased that she could help.
Each day we carried out the plan. I talked to Sam and played his favorite music. While completing all my nursing duties, I told him about the leaves changing colors and about the apples and cider for sale along the roadside. His vital signs were stable, no signs of infection but there was no response. It was hard to see this young man remain so still.
One day, as I struggled to put one of his heavy, long legs into his pajama bottom, I said, “Sam, it would be great if you could help me. Can you lift your leg?” His leg rose five inches off the bed. I tried to remain calm. “Thank you, Sam. Can you raise the other leg.” He did it! He could hear and follow commands, he had bilateral lower extremity movement, still, he had not regained consciousness or opened his eyes.
The next morning, I was told that during the night Sam had started breathing against the ventilator. As I came into his cubicle, I put my hand in his and told him I was there for the day. Sam squeezed it! I grabbed his other hand and asked him to squeeze again. He obeyed. Both hands and arms working on command. Praise God! I encouraged Sam all day. By the afternoon, he was breathing totally on his own and no longer required the ventilator.
Still his eyes remained closed. As I worked with Sam the next day, he turned his head from side to side to follow my voice wherever I was. I brought his mother into ICU. “Sam,” I said, as his face turned towards me, “Your mom is here.” A tear slid down his cheek. “Sam,” I repeated firmly, “your mom is here. Please open your eyes.” We watched him struggle to lift his eyelids. Finally, his eyes fluttered open, but he looked toward the sound of my voice. “Sam,” I said, walking around the side of the bed to stand behind his mother, “look at your mom.” Suddenly, recognition dawned in his eyes as he gazed at his mother’s face and began to sob. The staff and my instructor, Jeanne had gathered to watch this miracle unfold, they were all crying. I partially lowered the bed’s side rail for a long awaited mother and son embrace. I felt so blessed to be a part of this journey of healing.
Sam continued to improve rapidly and was soon discharged from ICU to the Rehabilitation Unit where he had to learn to walk, talk and perform all his activities of daily living. His mother was at his side every day.
In caring for Sam, I had dealt with my grief, loss, fears and emotions. I was able to do for Sam what I couldn’t do for my dear brother, Terry. Against all odds, Sam survived.
A few weeks later, while walking through the Rehab Unit, I heard someone call my name. It was Sam’s mother. We hugged, she was smiling. I saw a tall, handsome young man standing next to her. His formerly shaved head had grown a crew cut beginning to hide the many scars. I barely recognized him.
“Hi Sam, how are you?” I said. “Do you remember me?”
He cocked his head and spoke haltingly. “Your voice sounds so familiar.”
The lump in my throat only allowed me to respond, “I was one of your nurses in ICU.”
His words came out haltingly, “You..are..Nancy..My..mom..told..me..all..about..you.”
Here was a true miracle standing before me. For two weeks, my life was intertwined with Sam’s as we each experienced joyful healing.
One day, while Jeanne and I were driving to school, I gathered the courage to ask her why she blindsided me by assigning me a traumatic head injury patient, when she knew my story. She explained that she believed in my nursing skills and even more so in my character. She wanted me to face my fear while she was there to watch over and support me. I was emotionally touched to feel her kindness.
A few months later, at my graduation, I received flowers from Sam’s family. The card said,”To our Angel!” On this journey of healing, I believe that both Sam and I had the divine blessing of someone watching over us.