Early in my nursing career, I cared for Betsy Mercer, a young mother of six and seven-year-old boys, who just lost a baby due to placental detachment. She was catastrophically ill, suffering many serious complications. I dialyzed her for weeks while she was on the ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit. Meanwhile she went from bad–to worse–to worse. The only thing in her favor was her previous good health and the fact that she was a wife and mother with much of life to look forward to. She fought desperately to live, rallying when her family arrived and gave her detailed updates on her boys, even though she was heavily sedated on the ventilator.
As a mother, I identified with the grief she must be feeling at the loss of her much anticipated little girl; and my heart was touched deeply that this young mother would probably soon be lost to her two small boys–something no mother can fathom. Every day I sang to Betsy and talked to her as though we were friends. “Betsy, your husband brought these pictures of your boys today. They are so cute. He said they miss you but Grandma Sweet is getting them to and from school. Joey made you this bracelet and Kerry drew you a picture of your family. He drew you the biggest. He must really love you. I know they will be so glad to have you back home with them.” I put the bracelet on her wrist every day when I was with her and posted the kids’ art where she could see it when she was turned to the left. (Patients who can’t move are repositioned often to keep their skin healthy and to help prevent pneumonia.)
Late one Thursday I finished my shift and told Betsy that I would see her Tuesday morning after my long weekend (though I had little hope that she would still be there.) Her blood pressure was dangerously low and her heart rate high. She still had so many tubes and lines in her that it was difficult for one nurse to manage her care. I doubt that she was ever pain-free. I left Easter baskets in her room for her husband to take to the children, knowing that would have been important to her. I left and went home to prepare for my own family’s holiday, my anticipation tinged by anticipatory grief for her loving family.
On Tuesday morning I went back to the Intensive Care Unit, and my heart fell when I saw someone else in her room. I assumed that she had died, and I felt just awful. I asked her nurse when she had died. “Oh, Betsy rallied mid-day Friday. She didn’t need dialysis and got off the ventilator Saturday night. By Monday she was so much better that she was moved to the obstetrical floor.”
I was ecstatic at her recovery and meant to visit her in her room but didn’t get up there. About six weeks later a beautiful young woman stopped off at our unit to visit. It was Betsy! Fully recovered, she came to pay her caregivers a visit. I never would have recognized her. She was beautiful and the picture of good health. It was such a joy to see her and her family. It’s days like these that keep nurses coming back. Betsy didn’t remember any of us but knew we’d helped her fight for her life.
Many years later I met Mrs. Mercer’s children socially (they attended school with my young niece.) It was such a joy to see such happy, well-adjusted young men. Of course, I never mentioned that I’d cared for their mother during her catastrophic illness. It’s unlikely they ever knew how close they came to losing their mother and that’s just as it should be. That’s the true joy of nursing, being part of people’s lives, helping them win their battles.