Discharged from the Front Lines: Are we "falling back" or falling down? (Poem)
This is a guest article contributed on behalf of the American Nurses Association\California and written by: Teresa Martin RN, AMFT
I am a nurse. I am accustomed to death.
But am I familiar with grief?
- The Labor & Delivery nurse predicts with quiet confidence, "souls come into this world quietly, or with much drama, or with complications during the ride."
- The Hospice nurse whispers in consolation, "souls leave this world sometimes quietly in the night, sometimes with much suffering, or sometimes with complications during the journey."
- The ICU nurse emphasizes with hands motioning back and forth, "both entering and leaving the world, are a given in a persons' life - but the patients and families - they are completely unprepared for either."
The nurse works within the cycle of life and death - the natural cycle of life and death. But Covid did something to the cycle. It threw the circle of life completely out of balance. And we were left to pick up the pieces. Every shift. Not knowing when it would end. Until now, as we see "light at the end of the tunnel" - an apt life-after-death phrase.
Lockdown has been lifted in most of the US. Mask mandates have relaxed. The long forgotten smell of BBQ wafts in the air again. But we nurses are a superstitious lot. We continue to look over our shoulder and knock on wood. Our shoulders are still tense. Our brows are still furrowed. Our replies are still short and irritable. Our hands are still busy. Ever-loving busy.
We bury ourselves in twelve IV lines to manage, wound dressings to change, doctor's orders to make sense of, life-saving medications to draw up. But are we ignoring the most important "order" signed by Covid? The "order" to grieve? Are we totally unprepared for the emotional and spiritual journey we take, to bear witness to overwhelming death?
What is the toll to bearing witness? What is the toll for losing too many battles to death?
I can’t read for long periods of time. My attention span rivals my teenage sons - if it's not quick, to the point, and flashy, (AKA a video game), I am not able to attend to it. My butt is supersized. And I don't have the where-with-all or energy to read a recipe or cook something healthy. I am "lost in thought" and not present in a conversation at the bedside or in my home. I know when to shake my head and add in my two cents. But I am not really there. I am thinking of something else, anything else, anything other than death.
I am a nurse. I am prepared for casualties. But am I ready to face my own mortality?
Two hundred pairs of white shoes were placed on the steps of the White House early in the Pandemic. We lost many sisters and brothers to Covid. We read their stories. We knew them. We worked side by side with them. We were not and will never be ready to die on the job. Ever. The fear of dying, on the job, brought this work into a stark and scary reality -for all of us.
I was unprepared for my own first scrape with death - many years before Covid was even a word. It snuck up on me without knowing what was going on. I never saw it coming, until I saw the ED nurse's face. Then I knew. I was the patient who was told to put my affairs in order while my 38-year-old husband with two small children stood by. The gripping fear, confusion, anger, and helplessness is overwhelming when a doctor tells you to put your affairs in order. I never thought I would be the patient.
My Affairs are Not in Order
Heaviness. The weight of a wave,
pinning my chest to the bed.
No wheezing or gasping.
Just quiet, shallow breaths.
No one to call for help - husband is working
can't be disturbed at the firehouse.
Children on my bed, whining for something.
Not really sure what they want.
Confused. Hard to stay focused. Find the phone.
Riding to the ER in the neighbor's backseat,
dirt road with deep potholes.
Every bounce shortened the shallow breaths.
Pain piercing my right fifth intercostal.
Unable to ask the neighbor to slow down.
Unable to inhale.
The ER nurse maintains her professional voice
she reads the monitor.
Transparent to another nurse, though.
I manage to whisper "no vents."
Glances all around the triage bay.
Now they recognize me, a nurse.
The MD insinuates I must have AIDS to be so sick.
from a respiratory illness at thirty-eight.
Not one, but two negative HIV tests.
Where is my family? I'm alone here.
The O2 tank is loud. Lights too bright.
Where are my clothes? No blanket. I'm shaking.
My left arm is cold and swollen. IV looks blown.
Can't hit the call bell. Too tired.
Sticky, wet, blood everywhere.
I have to get up and put in a tampon.
Got to get the kids their snack before naptime.
What day is it? Just let me go home.
My affairs are not in order. My affairs are not in order.
of my love, my boys, my life.
I am a nurse. I am discharged from the front lines.
But how do we work through what we've seen? heard? done?
When I stopped looking for things to do, places to go, and items to buy for my "self-care", I was able to reflect on where real healing could begin. And I found it. I found it in the community. It was hard to admit that I needed people. It was hard to admit I couldn't "do it all" by myself. But admit it, I must. This one is just too big to hold up without each other.
"Community care" is where the real work, change, and transformation take place. Reaching out and surrounding myself with like-minded people from all over the world for support, in real ways, from weekly check-ins to keeping each other accountable for making change, to being a resource for one another with our respective expertise, to sharing a cup of coffee over zoom with laughter in our hearts. That is where the healing may begin.
It is never convenient to face loss. It's never convenient to heal. My "people" have given me the strength to open the door to healing. I have found a community this year in the most unusual places. With their positive energy, they have given me the strength to feel held in support. To feel and experience deep healing. I let people in. And they are holding me lovingly in their outstretched arms. I try to remember - the world is filled with magic and wonderful people - if I just let them in.
I am a nurse. I will rise.
But what will we do if we "fall down" from the toll of it all?
I leave you now with my healing mantra, so that you too may fall back, fall down, and RISE.
RISE - get up
FIND - your stance
LOOK - it in the eye
SEE - yourself, others
OWN IT - right now
PLAN - to do right by your sisters and brothers
DO - decisive action
FINISH - no nurse left behind
CELEBRATE YOUR POWER
Teresa Martin is a Women's Health and Hospice nurse, associate therapist, children's book author, and writer of poetry and prose. She gives you what she has - her story. Her journey, using poetry and prose, encourages her to say goodbye to her beasts, reclaim her beauty, and create a world filled with joy, where she can fly. She currently lives in Los Angeles and works as an inpatient Palliative Care Nurse. She is always up to join the ladies to surf gentle waves or fine-tune feminism over a strong cup of coffee. For more, visit TeresaMartinINK.com.
Excerpts taken from, "Fly with Me: One Woman's Leap into a Life of Love and Joy" (Braughler Books, 2021)
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