A few months into my first nursing job I met Michael, the patient who put me on the road to true nursing. Still limping down the painful road from enjoying success in nursing school to putting my poor skills and judgment into practice, I drove home most days thinking, “I can’t go back tomorrow. I can’t go back tomorrow.” I lived in terror of being caught alone with a patient whose survival depended on all that “nursing magic” that had so far eluded me. Orienting on an acute dialysis unit, my only useful skills were a pretty good nursing vocabulary, basic understanding of aseptic technique, expertise in taping, and the complete understanding that there was no question too stupid for me to ask. I would have never made it had my supervisor not been one of those vicious nurses who “ate her young.”
One day I learned it had fallen to me perform for Michael’s first dialysis treatment. Though I didn’t voice it, I thought Michael’s family ought to think twice before subjecting him to dialysis. He was thirty-six years old with Downs Syndrome and its many cardiac complications. He also had been diabetic for thirty years and had advanced liver disease as a result of hepatitis B, and now needed dialysis. I focused on how he would deal with it at his three-year-old functional level, fearing he would be difficult to manage and would put nurses and other patients at risk if he got upset and dislodged his needles during dialysis. Selfishly, I dreaded caring for him, thinking he would challenge my meager nursing skills. I made sure I had plenty of tape and practiced my taping skills. My supervisor was at hand at all times, feeling it would benefit me to take on my first challenging patient. Knowing she was looking over my shoulder was all that encouraged me to think I could handle this.
I could have saved my worry. Michael was a trooper and was much more in control of himself than I was. His mother had prepared him well, ensuring him we would take good care of him. He stole every heart in the dialysis unit that day. For all his follow up treatments, he was smiling when his mother brought him in, did everything he was asked, made no complaints when his needles were placed, dealt with his pain, and was the most delightful patient I ever had the privilege of caring for. He watched old movies constantly and challenged us all to identify the most obscure of actors, always beating us to the punch. He collected tee-shirts and often teased his nurse of the day, promising to loan his current favorite, only to laugh and withdraw his offer before leaving. I loved him dearly and treasured every moment I spent with him over the short three years I had the gift of being his nurse. I visited his mother after his death to express my sorrow. She thanked me for my involvement in his care and expressed gratitude to God that at seventy-two she’d been fortunate enough to outlive her son. Thanks to Michael and his mother I learned compassion and humility. Every soul has value and something to share.