I was a new graduate working in the Medical ICU, a few weeks off orientation, when I cared for Jenny*. She was 18 years old, the youngest patient on our unit. It was not the norm for such a young person to be a patient on our unit. In fact, it was odd. 

She was a college student who had gone to Student Health Services with an upper respiratory infection. She was given antibiotics and sent on her way. Why did she develop acute respiratory failure? I’m not sure anyone ever knew that answer. It was just one of those things…

Jenny spent a long time in our unit – months – battling the gamut of ICU complications we were used to seeing, just not in someone so young. ARDS, renal failure, GI bleed…just to name a few. She had her share of time spent on vasopressors, paralytics, and sedatives; endured arterial lines, SWAN placement, and dialysis; received multiple blood transfusions and courses of antibiotics; and was on and off isolation precautions for various resistant organisms. A tracheostomy and g-tube were placed when she became more stable and ready to wean from the ventilator. 

I was usually the nurse that wanted the sickest patients. I didn’t mind getting an unstable new admission or going on a road trip with a patient to a diagnostic study or procedure. One of my best days, however, was a slow one in the unit. Jenny was fairly stable, and she was my only patient that day. Her mom was there and was always eager to help with Jenny’s care. 

As the shift went on, and it looked like things were going to stay quiet on the unit (not that we EVER said that our loud), I asked Jenny if she’d like me to wash her hair. Her eyes got real big and she looked at me questioningly. She nodded.

Like many tasks, it took longer to gather supplies than to actually perform it. I finally found real shampoo (and conditioner!), used a water pitcher for wetting her hair and rinsing, set up a trash bag to catch the excess water, and piles and piles of towels. 

Jenny’s mom and I worked together washing her hair. We joked about opening our own salon and Jenny was smiling looking up at us. We made a mess and all got pretty wet, but it was worth it. We had gotten those weeks of knots and dried blood and betadine from her hair, combed it neatly, and it smelled so nice! 

When we finished, Jenny asked for a paper and pen. She wrote “Think you could shave my legs?”

Her mom and I looked at each other. “Sure.”

*Not her real name.