DAY 18

I’m unexpectedly transported back to the afternoon when I sat in my spiritual director’s office, just a few days before I left home. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, so I catch him up on lots – what I’ve been reading, how I’ve been praying, what has taken a lot of discipline, what needs work. “Good, good,” he says, and then pauses. “How’s your heart?”

Ah. It’s the question we often neglect to ask, the one we rarely feel we have permission to answer. But deep down, it’s always lingering there. We hide it behind How are you? when we really want to ask: Are you still grieving your wife’s death? Are you coping with your dad’s illness? Are you struggling to find your place in life? Are you happy?

Yet somehow, we can’t bring ourselves to ask it. Sometimes, because we’re too tired, too busy, too selfish. But often, I think, because we’re afraid to, knowing we have no solutions for things beyond our means to fix, and that our consoling words will be inadequate.

How’s your heart? I know it’s something the people who love me have often tried to ask in other ways, which I continually evade. But this time, I answer.

I tell him about the IVs I blew this week on two perfectly good veins. I usually didn’t let these mistakes get to me, but both these patients had exploded at me, and I’d had a hard time trying to shake the lingering shame and humiliation.

I tell him about the ache that’s been there my whole life, but has been resurfacing recently. The one of never belonging, the one of always feeling like an option, but never chosen. The one that has always been looking, but has never found a true sense of home.

I tell him about the young patient from our clinic who committed suicide last week.

He doesn’t pretend to have answers or consolations about what the future will hold. But as I kneel in the quiet before the Blessed Sacrament after our session, I realize what a gift it was to just slow down and be heard.

Hurry, hurry, hurry. I hear the voice whisper in my ear in the ER. There is a line of patients to be triaged. There is an endless stream of people who need bloodwork and medications. There is a patient to be intubated just as the paramedics are offloading another patient with a heart rate of 30.

Hurry, hurry, hurry. I hear the voice whisper again while I’m at the clinic. The hallway is filled with patients. The docs need more patients ready to be seen. A family of five needs their immunization records transcribed. Someone needs a month of their BP meds. Someone else needs information on midwives.

Oh yes, I say, when asked if I’ve seen this patient. The guy with chest pain. The lady with a butt abscess and three rambunctious children. The old man with a head injury on blood thinners. This is all I have time to notice. It’s a necessary skill to do things quickly in these places where I work, but I worry it’s a habit spilling over into the rest of my life.

Here, up North, I still keep my eye on the stack of charts piling at the front. But something about knowing there is no doctor to assess these patients after me gives me pause, makes me hold my stethoscope to their chest and listen just a little longer. I ask more questions. I don’t rush them out the door.

This gentleman is here for a congested cough since this morning. I saw him last week for a runny nose and knee pain. It’s the kind of chief complaint that might warrant a sigh and an eye roll in the ER. “Chest xray, send him home,” we’d predict after reading the triage note.

Today, when I listen to his lungs, he’s all crackly on the left side. Our xray machine is down today, so I can’t confirm the pneumonia diagnostically, but I treat him with a round of antibiotics. “Do you have any other questions?” I ask, after explaining how to take them. No, but he wants to tell me all about his new grandson. When he tells me that he got to meet and hold him yesterday, he grins so widely, I can see all of his few remaining decayed teeth. We talk about his family, and what life has been like after retirement. “How long have you been a nurse?” he asks me. “Three years,” I answer. “It’s gone by quickly.”

The next lady has bad sciatica pain that has been making her leg go numb and give out on her. She can’t really take pain meds because part of her kidney has been removed from cancer. As I prepare a specialist referral for her, she tells me about her husband in chemo, and how hard it’s been to come by the health centre in between taking care of him. “How are you coping with his illness?” I ask.

How’s your heart? I am learning, finally, to slow down and ask this question, in a thousand different ways. I have never had trouble being an efficient nurse, but it’s about time I learned to be a better one.


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  2. I remember you telling me bits and pieces of this part of nursing; how difficult it is to slow down and treat patients as human beings with desires, frustrations, and everything in between. So glad being up North is giving you opportunities to learn how to do just that <3

  3. The heart needs not just compressions, but also recoil my friend :)


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