WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, the senior women in my life were nurses who lived what they had learned, although neither was employed once their married years began. My mother and grandmother loved to tell stories about the lives they'd touched, the difference that their work had made.
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My father, however, held a very dim view of their chosen career paths. He wasn't interested in consorting with those whose work he considered mindless drudgery; manual labor akin to the ditchdigging he'd done during World War I. He had a long, distinguished career as a scholar of religious philosophy, university professor, reverend, and author. He sang and he acted professionally.
He sighed and shook his head when I told him my plan to attend our hometown college of nursing. "Well, you can always fall back on it for work if you need to," he said.
That was our detente as I married, raised my two sons, and worked.
He became a wonderful grandfather to my sons, and there was no need to point out how much my life as a nurse had elevated the other arenas. It happened without comment from him.
My view of our profession is of an art form that we perform behind a curtain, not in front of one. Those whose performance needs audience appreciation will never understand what nurses know. The patient most in need of our expertise is often the least likely to thank, praise, or commend us to our administrators.
In 1999, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy over the next 7 years. At times he accepted his changing role as patient, but he often raged against the unfairness.
My experience of those years seems best likened to the scene in the "Wizard of Oz" movie when the fearsome apparition is revealed to be a mortal man. The mild-mannered wizard, so unlike the fiery version, was easier to love. For the first time ever, my father sought my company. He needed the care of someone he could trust.
His greatest fear was that his symptoms would conspire to diminish him in the eyes of others, but he was always treated with deference. During one episode, he was admitted at midnight after a long day in the ED. I was apprehensive about our arrival on the nursing unit. Would the staff resent an incontinent, delirious, irritable patient disrupting the beginning of their shift?
They did not. His complex needs were attended to with expertise and kindness. He was never made aware of the difficulty his arrival had caused the staff, although it was obvious to me. They treated him respectfully, and their good humor gave him comfort. I felt proud of my fellow nurses.
As his journey wended to comfort care, there were many such examples. His physicians guided his care with respect to his beliefs and best outcomes. His discomforts were eased by many. His hospice home care nurse's thorough understanding of his changing situation made it possible for us to keep him in his beloved home. He was able to acknowledge this honestly.
My sisters visited, laughed, and wept with him, but he trusted me to tend him in his final days. I feel such gratitude for that time I was afforded to be his caregiver instead of misunderstood family member.
I can accept that we should outlive our forebears as a part of the arc that our lives are meant to travel. Mortality is unfair, so often insidious and random. That we should find satisfaction in our pursuits along that arc is not a reward we will all receive. Thankfully, my time as a nurse has not ever resembled the mindless ditchdigging my father remembered.
Being a nurse for whoever lands in my department now means even more to me than before. When I introduce myself to my patients and write their daily plan on the whiteboard at the start of each shift, I know that the shoe could so easily fall upon the other foot.
Like my father, my patients allow me behind the curtain and trust me to care for them with competence and compassion...because I'm their nurse.