If you ever want to put your life in perspective, become a nurse.
There’s something incredibly humbling about seeing people at their weakest moments, in situations you can only hope you never find yourself in. Sometimes there are no words that could adequately describe the raw emotion witnessed and shared. There’s nothing that could describe the night I watched a grown man cry as he told me he relapsed on heroin. As I brought him into the emergency exam room, he told me he wanted to die. He felt he let his whole family down.
I knew this man, I had taken care of him before. He was the kind of patient that could be easily judged. Called a junkie. Dismissed. Ignored.
But the first thing he asked me for wasn’t food or pain medication. It wasn’t a blanket or the television remote. In a hushed voice, he apologized and asked me for the hospital-issue mesh underwear. He whispered that he hasn’t had access to a shower in several days, and he would really appreciate clean undergarments. When I asked if he would like me to bag up his old clothes, he told me to just throw them away. He told me he was disgusting.
As someone who always knows what to do in an emergency, who can typically de-escalate any situation, I was left speechless. I thought to myself, “how must this man be feeling? To have to ask the young female nurse for clean underwear because he feels dirty?” I tried to empathize, but couldn’t. Because I just didn’t know where to start.
I, of course, brought him clean underwear along with his hospital gown. I gathered my information, and he told me he had relapsed before but he had never felt this bad about himself. He never really wanted to die until now. He really tried this time, but everyone he knows continues to use. His family is little by little giving up on him. His insurance is running out. What does he have to live for?
After I got him settled, he apologetically asked for some crackers. He told me how the friend he was staying with didn’t have enough money for food. He couldn’t meet my eyes as he told me he was hungry. I went to our fridge and brought out all the food I could find. We had some sandwiches, salads, etc. I wasn’t going to give this broken, hungry man just crackers. I showed him the variety and let him choose. I asked what kind of juice he liked, but he asked for chocolate milk. This isn’t prison, I thought. He should be able to choose what he would like to eat, like a human being. When was the last time he was shown a little kindness?
A little while later he called out from his room, calling me ma’am, and kept saying how sorry he was to bother me but could he have another chocolate milk? I, again, tried to imagine what it must be like to have to ask someone for something to eat and drink. To be that helpless.
I saw what other people might see. A “frequent flyer” who just wants a free meal and a blanket. Maybe so. But he asked for clean underwear. No one puts themselves through that embarrassment for some crackers and a blanket.
Maybe he was just looking for some food and a place to stay, but I didn’t care. I wanted to do whatever I could to make this man’s life just a little easier, even if it was for one night. I saw the pain in his eyes, and my experience tells me that’s something you can’t fake.
To say that that night humbled me is an understatement. In a world where we have opioid epidemics and emergency room nurse’s being stabbed over narcotics, some would say it is easy to judge an addict. But sometimes we have to take a step back and remember why we do this job. We want to heal. We want to care for the weak. Regardless of what got them there. We never know the whole story or why someone is suffering.
I can only hope that I gave that man some peace, that I gave him a little dignity. Sometimes that’s all we can do, and sometimes it’s enough.