I thought I knew.

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I thought I knew. Really, I did. I mean, I’ve seen it all right? I know how it works. I have directed more people than I can count to this very room. You know the drill. “If you will have a seat right in here, I will make sure the nurse knows where you are and they will come get you after they get them settled in the room” and then they wait, that’s it. That’s why they call it a “waiting room” but, I was wrong. I had no idea what happens in here.

This room is nestled right outside our biggest ICU, and houses the family and friends of all the patients in our neurotrauma and medical/surgical intensive care units. The sickest of the sick. One of those places where the nurses speak a different language, one of drips and art lines, and know their patients more intimately than some people know their own families. A place where full recovery is rare and the ODA staff have pictures hanging on the “ICU family wall.” I am sure it can be a place of laughter and celebration. A place where people survive, pull through, and do miraculous things, but I think more often than not the outcome isn’t rosy, and the patients either die or move on, there just isn’t a time to see them walk out of the hospital. A place where quickly learning how to leave “work at work” is a survival technique, and being off your game is just not an option. These nurses are awesome, plain and simple. Seriously, they rival my ED staff, and you all know how I feel about them.

I had the honor, and I do mean honor, of spending some time in this space just a few months ago. Not as a patient, but at my grandmothers side as she spent the last few days of her life having every little need met by these incredible people. They adjusted her drips, combed her hair, monitored her CVP, intubated her when she lost her respiratory drive, watched for trends in her serial blood gasses, gave her bed baths, held my hand, laughed with me, cried with me, fed me, rubbed her feet, paced the halls with me, problem solved with me, covered me up when I fell asleep, controlled her pain, put lotion on her face, called the doctor, and stood by us as we made the hardest decision I have made to date. Then they extubated her, turned off her drips, reassured me, and helped me cope, when I just couldn’t take another breath. They were flawless. I’m sure they may not have felt that way, because we didn’t save her, we couldn’t, but they were flawless. Everything that I could hope someone would be to my family if I ever found myself on the other side of this bed.

In the days I spent here I watched people come and go, some only stopping by for a moment, just a visit, and others who never left. Wearing the same clothes for days and sleeping in chairs with a pillow propped on the wall. Parents with small children who just wanted to go home, but were afraid if they left they may miss that final moment. Young girls sitting in the floor making “get better” and “we’re praying for you” poster boards, complete with glitter and glue, at 3am, trying to convince themselves the person on the other side of the door was going to survive. Whole families, I mean 20-30 people sobbing in each others arms at the news their young daughter would not ever awaken, and watching her father as he gasped for air. Feeling such real pain for people I had never met. Mothers, sisters, wives, brothers; crying, praying, cursing, wishing, anything to ease the pain. Tired eyes, throbbing feet, and exhausted hearts. People at the end of their rope holding on for dear life. Pacing the halls with their cold coffee and tear-stained shirts.

I hadn’t ever really given much thought to what happened inside that pretty little room with the frosted glass windows. How many hearts had been broken, how many unheard cries for help had bellowed down the halls, and how many people had cursed the sky, or lost their ability to breath, to speak. Hurt so bad you can barely feel. Once you have been there, once you have seen that place and the faces that come and go, you can’t ever forget. There are very few times I can remember witnessing pain that intense. I mean I knew, but I didn’t KNOW.

Being an ER nurse is a hard job, we see a bit of everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly; and often times we taste this pain, this palpable anguish of the ICU, but this is a different world. One where not only the patients, but everyone you meet is fighting for their life. Everyone is holding on by a thread, praying for a miracle, and hurting in a way that you can’t describe until you have lived it. It’s intense, it’s incredible, and it’s beautiful. The will to survive…Now I know.

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