If you are a young nurse in a big hospital, most days have a tedious sameness. But the tension never leaves.
You learn to walk fast. You rarely stop to make small talk in the hallways. There's always too much to accomplish and not enough time.
You knock softly on doors before entering the patient's room.
"And how do you feel today?" you ask.
Often, the sickest tell you they feel just fine. Others, with comparatively minor illnesses, attempt to make their situation sound grave. You smile reassuringly at all of them. By now, you understand the game. Nobody wants to hear that they are critically ill. They all want to be told they are coming along just fine.
It doesn't take a nurse long to learn the great secret about the art of healing. Each patient actually has his own doctor within himself. In many cases, the patient actually has the power to heal himself.
William James once wrote that recovery is actually hampered because human beings tend to live too far within self-imposed limits. In Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins wrote: "Never underestimate the capacity of the human mind and body to regenerate--even when the prospects seem most wretched." As a nurse, it is a vital part of your job not to interfere with the healing process.
So you strive to maintain a facade of calmness. You avoid startling your patients. You check the pulse and get out your thermometer.
You jot down the numbers.
"Thank you," you say.
"What's my temperature?" they ask. "Am I getting better?" "You're doing just fine. The doctor will be right along. He'll tell you all about it." Checking on patients, trying to smile, reassuring the frightened, explaining to the hard cases that the doctor actually has not forgotten them and will be along as promised. These are the things a nurse must be content to do every day of her career.
Unless you're very sensitive, there is a danger it can become, after a while, like working on an assembly line.
But human beings differ. There are some you will like instinctively. Others will stimulate the opposite reaction.
Not long ago, a young nurse who is still in her first year came to face the enormity of her job.
She works in one of the largest hospitals in Phoenix and writes often about her experiences to her parents in Iowa.
There were tears in her eyes as she sat down to write recently.
"I can't explain it," she began. "Sometimes, you just connect with people. This man was one of those people. He was transferred to my floor from the telemetry unit. He had an extensive medical history.
"He was a quiet man. He lay in his hospital bed and greeted me with a warm smile. I felt hurried that day but his presence took my edge off. I assessed him and then went about my other duties. He didn't ask much of me. A good thing, too, because I don't know that I had much to give him just then.
"The next night, I went in to check his blood sugar. He told me it was nice to have such a pretty nurse. I think I smiled and looked down. We were awaiting the accu-check results and I asked him about his diabetes.
"He said that he was glad that he hadn't lived in fear of it all his life. If he had, he never would have been able to do what he had done with his life. He wasn't afraid of what it might bring. His relatives had died of complications from diabetes.
"There's a lesson there, somewhere. He said that he had been blessed with a wonderful life. I don't know that he was any more fortunate than the next man. I believe he just had a way of looking at things. He seemed more appreciative of most of the things that came his way.
"Later that evening, I looked up from the nurses' stand. I saw him looking at me. I smiled and waved. I asked him if he needed anything. Of course, he said no.
"The next morning, around eight, he suffered a massive stroke.
"He no longer has the use of the right side of his body. He can't speak. You ask him a `yes' or `no' question and he can squeeze your hand.
"He smiles occasionally. It's not the most symmetrical smile but it means a lot more to me. He has a wonderful family. His children love him very much. His daughter was sitting with him when I went in to see him after the stroke.
"I told her that her father had said some very nice things about her to me the night before. She began to cry. He saw his daughter crying and he also began to cry. He didn't want her to hurt for him.
"`What can I do for this man?' I asked myself. Physically, I can keep him comfortable. I can reposition him in bed, give him morphine and be an advocate for him with the doctors.
"Mentally, maybe I can learn from him. He waves at me still. This time, with his left hand instead of the right. I don't know. Sometimes, you just connect with patients.
"Addendum: Yesterday, my patient died. I was his nurse that evening. What a blessing for him and his family. "It was strange to walk him down to the morgue, put him in a meat-locker room with other guests and sign him in the book.
"His family will fly him back East to lay him to rest.
"Dad, there are some truly exceptional people out there.