It’s a little chilly in your bathroom, but, you are sweating and have the fan strategically blowing in your face. Your color is pale, almost like a pre tanned vacation photo except you have look that alerts others you aren’t well. Eyes are sunken, the brightness that once was there is no more. The dark rings around the once illuminated eyes highlight your exhaustion. Lips pale and dry, almost like the parched desert just begging for moisture. You are leaning forward because breathing, which was never a conscious thought, is now a balancing act between finding the right position and having the strength to actually breathe. It takes all of your might, as you pull in air, your whole body shakes as if you have just been jarred by an earthquake. The breath comes fast and the release slow. You have listened to me as I go over the simple pattern of breathing. Deep slow breaths.
I am trying to calm you down. I am trying to help you relax. You are anxious – breathing was never this hard or took all of your might. You have been sick all day and the few gulps of milkshake you managed to swallow down have long since made their way back up. But, you aren’t really hungry, are you? Your body is not needing much anymore. Your family is so worried you haven’t eaten, but, at this point, eating isn’t really an issue anymore. As I look into those sad eyes, you and I both talk without saying a word. It is deafeningly loud but the room is silent.
We both know what is happening. As I am using a cool washcloth to wipe off your brow and neck, you sigh loudly and moan between bouts of intractable nausea. You are so painfully thin that I try not to blot too hard for fear I will cause you to loose the little sense of balance you have left. Your clavicles, your ribs, your hipbones all jut out like painful reminders of this difficult journey that has tested you physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Sometimes, you look at me and ask me why… I wish I could answer you honestly and give you what you seek, but, the answer is that I don’t know. Ironic because as your nurse, I am supposed to know all the answers. But, this one, I just don’t.
It has robbed you of your dignity as you sit almost naked, save for the grey knit pants draped around your ankles and your white bra that once had a tiny pink flower in the center. Sitting there in your bathroom, hunching over the back of your wheelchair with your pink bucket always within reach, you don’t know what you are doing but you are opening my eyes to the depths of humanity.
You see, I have done a lot of nursing things in my years as an RN. In Med/Surg, I ran around worrying about my 9 patients, too busy to think how unsafe it was to care for 9 plus be in charge of the unit. On Stepdown, I started to worry about sicker patients with more acute needs. In ICU, I titrated drips that made the difference between life and death. And, in PACU, my focus was wake up time, vital signs and pain control. But, here in your bathroom, with your hand gripping my forearm, was the first time I truly felt like I was a nurse in the complete definition of the word.
Long after I was supposed to be done for the day, you said you needed to go lay down. With your husband’s help, we manage to get you back in bed. I know you have company waiting to see you, but they can wait a few minutes more. I know you were always a woman who liked to look put together. We rinse out your mouth with mouthwash and put some deodorant on. I prop the pillows up behind you and hear you slightly chuckle as I try to comb your hair, telling you that I am lucky I have some nursing skills because I would never make it as a hair dresser. We put on your shirt, a grey top to match your bottoms. And as your husband leaves the bedroom to get your visitors, you stop me, putting your painfully thin hand in mine and thank me. The truth is, I should be thanking you. Thank you for allowing me the honor to see you at your most vulnerable and being able to care for you. By caring for you, by looking into your eyes, the lessons taught will never be forgotten – humility, humanity, empathy, compassion… so, my friend, thank you.