1. Padgett, Tonja DNP, RN, ACNS-BC


After a nephew's overdose, the author finds little refuge in her professional identity.


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The phone was ringing. It was the early morning, at an hour when you know a phone call cannot be good. My nephew had overdosed on heroin and was at the hospital. A few hours later, I walked into his room, went to his side, and took hold of his hand. I said, "Oh, Joseph. If you were not so sick, I would spank you." This drew a chuckle from the nurse at the doorway. It probably was a silly thing to have said as I stood before this grown man who was hooked up to a ventilator, several ivs, and monitors. But I meant it. It was not until hours later that I thought about the possibility of being put in the chart as "the crazy aunt" who thought she could spank this man.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new window Illustration by Gingermoth.

My next thought was that I didn't really know what to do. I was on the wrong side of this. This happened to other people's families, not mine. I was supposed to be reading the monitors and titrating the drips. I was supposed to be taking care of the patient. I was supposed to be comforting the family. I was the nurse.


As we spent the next few days at the hospital, the physicians would give us updates and the nurses would do all they could for my nephew. It was during this time that I found myself wishing I was not a nurse. I did not want to understand what the physicians and nurses were telling us, not when my brother was holding my hand and asking me, "What did that mean?"


How could I say it out loud? It would make it too real. The nurses seemed to sense this, and explained it again. But my brother would want to hear it from me. I heard the physicians saying things like "Only a small part of the brain stem is functioning," and "His other organs are shutting down." While I tried to explain this to my brother, he would be praying for my nephew to make some urine. The nurses and I had told him that his kidneys were not making urine because they were not functioning. He prayed so hard for urine, while I prayed for the needed words. So many family members and friends were there, but he depended on me because I was his sister, a nurse.


Throughout this time, the nurses took such good care of my nephew. Not because they followed the ventilator-associated pneumonia bundle perfectly or because they always washed their hands when they came into the room, but because they treated him nonjudgmentally, with dignity and concern. They even nodded their heads in agreement when "the crazy aunt" told them that this man who had overdosed on heroin really was a good boy. While they saw a man who may have even looked a little scary, with scars and tattoos covering much of his body, I saw a boy whom I loved.


The nurses took such good care of us as well. They let the family be at his bedside as much as possible. They answered questions. They explained everything they did. They listened to us. Those nurses were invaluable to us all.


When it was time, we held onto my nephew and each other while the respiratory therapist and nurse turned the ventilator off. When I think about this time, I can feel the pressure of my brother squeezing my right hand and my father's hand on my shoulder. I can feel my left hand on my nephew's leg, which was closest to where I was sitting. I just wanted to touch him. As the aunt, I tried to will him to breathe on his own, even though as the nurse I knew this would not happen. Where were those nurses? They were right there in the back of the room with us, ready to provide support to whoever needed it. Those wonderful nurses.


I learned that, for that time in my life, I was not the nurse. I was the aunt; this was my family; the nurses were taking care of my nephew; and we were the ones who needed comfort. I would be the nurse a different day.