After one bad day, I was ready to quit nursing. But a patient I barely knew changed my mind.


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"NO HEARTBEAT," Dr. Sloan muttered. "He's gone."


Tears ran down my cheeks. Ian shouldn't have died. He was only 26-my age. A pulmonary embolism hit him like a bullet. As I tried to comfort his family I wondered, Why did I ever become a nurse?


In the restroom, I splashed water on my face and dried my eyes. Then I called a priest for his family.


Other patients needed my attention. Forcing a smile, I peeked in on Rachael, 24, who was going home today. Two weeks earlier, she'd had a below-the-knee amputation for a bone sarcoma. Now she sat in a wheelchair in her jeans skirt, small and vulnerable. Her curly hair was neatly styled, and she was wearing makeup for a change. She seemed strong and stoic but emotionally detached. I'd always felt her resistance, an empty friendliness.


Sitting down with her, I reviewed her discharge instructions. Could I have done anything to improve our relationship? I asked myself. I knew little about her personal life or how she felt about her cancer. "Do you have any questions?" I asked.


"No questions, Lois. I wrote this letter for you, but don't open it until you get home." She shoved an envelope into my hand.


I put it in my pocket. "Thank you, Rachael. Good luck." I tried to hug her, but she gently pushed me away.


"Here comes my neighbor. I'm paying her to help me out at home. Now don't get mushy." Rachael's voice cracked. She looked away to regain her composure. Soon her neighbor was wheeling her away.


I started to follow, then had to dart into the supply room to dry my tears again.


But there was no time for crying. Ella's call light was blinking. Terminally ill, she should have been in the hospice unit, but we were trying to get her home. Her only son was getting married soon, and she desperately wanted to attend the wedding. She'd had two strokes and her cardiac function was poor, but she'd been working hard with the physical therapist; I'd never seen anyone so animated. I hoped she'd make it.


The rest of the day was hectic, and I ended up working 2 extra hours. Why hadn't I dropped out of nursing school and gotten an easier job? I went home exhausted and discouraged.


"I'm leaving nursing," I told my husband when I got home. I pounded my fist on the table, then jammed my stinging hand into my pocket. Wait-paper crinkled. Rachael's letter. I pulled it out and gingerly opened it. This is what it said.


I began to sob. "I never knew she cared," I told my husband. "Maybe I give more than I realize. Maybe I have what it takes after all."


At that moment, I saw my career in a new light. I realized that nursing lets me enter another's sacred space, sometimes without knowing it. Rachael helped me realize that my life energy can help someone heal.


Now, years later, I'm more convinced than ever that nursing is a divine way to connect to others and learn about myself. As we live our lives, my patients and I cross paths. And for as long as they need me, our paths become one.


Lois Gerber is a community health nurse in Port Orange, Fla.


Dear Lois,


Thank you for walking along my path. You don't know it, but you saved my life. I have a miserable life, with no good friends and nothing to live for. My dad abused me, and I've been raped, robbed, and assaulted at every turn. I don't trust anyone or anything.


I didn't want to live, but your life force pulled at mine and just wouldn't let it go. I tried to push you away, even when I was half unconscious, but I couldn't.


Through all my misery I can still recognize a gentle smile and a kind heart, and for these things I'm grateful. Thank you for looking beyond the patient and seeing the person behind my eyes, for reaching out to me and never expecting anything in return, for your generous and quiet compassion.


May God continue to bless you.


Peace, Rachael

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