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I DON'T BELIEVE in ghosts. I do, however, admit the possibility that emotionally charged events may linger, leaving an atmospheric echo or snapshot of sorts, recording the dramatic moments in life...the ones that make your heart pound or ache and cause you to greet the dawn with new lines etched onto your face. I've passed many of those nights on 3 West.
3 West is a standard-issue hospital floor in a moderate-sized Midwestern medical center, distinguished from similar facilities only by the view of obsolete coal mines from the upper floors. Obstetrics, intensive care, and step-down units form a large rectangle. Each door opens on the potential for great joy or great sorrow, where life often shrugs indifferent shoulders and leaves the room-sometimes with a whisper, but occasionally storming out with slamming doors and the clatter of a crash cart.
I worked nights on 3 West for 5 years. Now, 20 years after I left, the faces have changed and the machines sport more bells and whistles, but the fundamentals remain. The mop is in the same closet, and I can still find every outlet and switch on the wall. We were the phantoms who slipped in and out of the dimly lit rooms, performing difficult tasks while affording patients whatever dignity was still possible.
Although I no longer live near the hospital, my family does. With an aging mother in poor health, I'm once again spending my nights on 3 West.
Wheeling my mom back from her most recent surgery, it occurred to me that there wasn't a door on this floor that I hadn't seen the backside of, either as a working nurse or a harder-working family member.
From my vantage point in the hub of the central hall I could see into the corner room in the ICU where my father died, a victim of his first and final myocardial infarction. Thirty steps in the opposite direction bring me to the double doors concealing the birthing room where my oldest granddaughter was born. Halfway between the two is the room where my mother suffered through a precarious recovery from a previous surgery, the one where I learned the meaning of the phrase "my knees went weak" with the abrupt announcement of a Code Blue while I was filling in on a distant floor and couldn't respond.
I passed many milestones here. My 30th birthday was marked with grim humor by my coworkers, who provided black balloons and a tombstone-decorated cake. During holidays spent separated from our families, we cared for those who'd have rather been anywhere but here.
Today, I'm reminded of the kindness of an ICU nurse on 3 West years ago as she assisted me with myriad forms and rituals pertaining to my father's death. She made me feel that she had nothing more important to do at that moment than to comfort me, as if even in death he remained her patient and required her skill, care, and compassion. Small things I'd done for other patients-gathering personal effects, packing and labeling dentures and glasses for transport to the funeral home-became large things when done for someone you love. I'm sure the nurse could have done the job more swiftly and efficiently, but she allowed me the comfort of stumbling through these last small tasks that I could do for my father. I learned then that skill and technology are important, but kindness is what we take away from the darkest moments in life.
My mother's current nurses continue the tradition of caring for the little things, such as making sure her glasses are within easy reach and draping an extra blanket at the foot of the bed to be pulled up at the first hint of a chill. Over the years much has changed, but the primary focus of nursing care on 3 West remains the same-the nurses speak and care and touch as if each patient were truly a member of their family, and they treat each situation as if they know how it feels on both sides of every door. The echoes remain, and I'm proud to be one of them.
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