I’ve had many moments of observing the steady slowing and final stopping of a heart beat. I’ve had countless times to share a patient’s frightening sense of vulnerability as bodies cheat their owners and life becomes uncertain with death a real possibility. In fact, it was just over a month ago that we talked, my brother and I, about our bodies’ betrayal, sitting with him as he lay dying.
During my early years of nursing in critical care, medical devices, monitoring equipment and life-sustaining technology surrounded the patient’s bed. I could read the importance of numbers and waves, the patterns of electrical signals accompanying my knowledge of what the progressive fatigue of a heart’s AV node appears like on the monitor in the room. And since those earlier years, without the ready assistance of monitors and infinite data available, I have honed the skills of nursing observation and assessment to understand what subtle changes mean in skin color, heart rate, blood pressure, and the emotional state of my patients as they have neared the end of life.
But now it was myself, anxious and vulnerable in my hospital gown with my heart rate dipping into the 20’s and a recognition of what too many p waves on the monitor in the emergency room meant for me. It was my spouse, holding my hand with a worried look, attempting to be calm. It was my physicians, trying to find a bed in the entire state of Oregon that could accept me as a patient and meet the immediate need of pacemaker implantation. Oregon’s hospitals were diverting due to COVID; hospital beds were at a premium. In the early hours of waiting in the emergency room, two patients were also having to wait for beds: one having a stroke and one in the midst of having a heart attack. This was a stark reminder of the strange times we live in, many of us vaccinated and working outside hospital settings perhaps less aware of the impact COVID was still placing on staff, patients and families in crisis in our medical centers.
Hours later, when the bed became available, it was me in the back of the ambulance this time, not as a nurse accompanying a patient to a Portland hospital, but being that person who needed emergency transport to a center 3 hours away that could accept another patient.
I’ve had empathy for all my patients over the years, and so many conversations about loss and powerlessness—yet a bystander. That sense of helplessness, loss of control, being dependent, hit me hardest after being treated and released and coming home. A pre-planned move was happening the week following my procedure. To have so many dear ones help with the move was both humbling and frustrating—I was the restricted “invalid” who could do little to help.
Now, recovering from my “scare”, and having time to think about many of the feelings I encountered these past weeks, the word helpless is prominent in my experience. I knew I was helpless (defenseless) to make my body respond the way it should; I saw how my spouse felt helpless (paralyzed) to fix my situation; I recognized the emergency room physician felt helpless (powerless) to make a hospital bed materialize; I felt the helpless (tapped out) yet enduring hands that cared for me from the moment I entered the doors of the ER, throughout the week ahead. Those whom I knew well, and those whom I had not met before, became my lifeline to move from a vulnerable, helpless state, to a sense of renewed purpose. The medical marvel of my pacemaker, the competence of the medical team, and loved ones cheering me on have all done their job—I am resolved to not stop.
Life isn’t done with me yet.