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Seeking Higher Ground: In praise of nurses

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

I didn’t plan to spend extended periods with nurses in the year of COVID-19. But after three eye surgeries gave me an up-close and personal view, I came away convinced that nursing must be a “calling,” something akin to ministry.
These days, cataract surgery is almost routine (or was before COVID). Last May, I was pleased to learn that Medicare would at last approve surgery to remove the smoggy clouds from my eyes, but I was shocked to learn that I also needed strabismus surgery! Since birth, I have been cross-eyed due to the same misalignment suffered by Siamese cats; it took six decades to learn that it was fixable!
Because of COVID complications, it took seven months to schedule the three “elective” surgeries my eyes needed.
I say “elective” here with some irony. While any surgery short of a medical emergency is considered elective, my vision felt urgent. My eyes were holding up only for about two hours for reading or computer work. A few hours more and my weary eyes succumbed to double vision, despite the prisms in my glasses. At night, between the glare of oncoming headlights and the TWO white lines I saw at the shoulder of the road, I worried that I could quickly become a candidate for non-surgery.
I checked into Children’s Rocky Mountain Hospital in Denver for my “Siamese cat surgery” on a November morning. I wasn’t worried about the procedure. I was too busy fighting panic over the IV. Even when I get a blood test, I close my eyes and squeeze the chair like a python. I’m terrified of needles.
“I think the vein in my right arm is easier to find,” I ventured.
“Oh, we’re good at finding tiny veins,” the nurse assured me. “This is a children’s hospital.”
Just then, the doctor walked in. He exchanged a nod with the nurse, then began asking who had dropped me off.
“All done!” the nurse exclaimed.
“You’ve practiced that diversion before, haven’t you?” I laughingly alleged. The nurse smiled knowingly.
A month later, after my surgically-reattached eye muscles had healed, I checked into Valley View Hospital for cataract surgery. A team of nurses danced around me, rolling me in warm blankets, attaching pressure-massage bandages to my legs and inserting the dreaded IV — again, quite expertly. Their choreography astonished me. So many tasks, so few collisions! I couldn’t understand all the medical jargon, but I noticed the skill, the precision, the teamwork. I wondered about the nods and the scribbles they left on a white board, one that noted, among other things, that I answer to my middle name.
Every few minutes, one of the nurses jotted a numerical code on the white board.
“What’s that about?” I queried.
“Those are the drops to prepare your eyes for surgery,” she answered. “One every three minutes.”
It wasn’t the first time I had been wowed by nursing at Valley View. A year earlier, a painful attack of pancreatitis landed me in the ER. I then spent a night in acute care. In the wee hours, as I struggled to get to the bathroom to throw up the water I had drunk, a male nurse named Jesus ministered to my needs. He checked on me repeatedly, tip toeing in to monitor my pain meds and to make sure I was warm and as comfortable as I could be while trying to sleep sitting up.
The care I received this past year from nurses — at Children’s Hospital, Valley View and at Grand Valley Hospital — has been literally eye-opening. Thanks to those wonderful nurses, I experienced virtually no pain or fear through three surgeries encompassing five procedures.
Watching all those nurses working masked and cautious, I have worried about how much stress COVID is inflicting on them.
In February, I watched a 15-minute New York Times video called “Death Through a Nurse’s Eyes.” The filmmakers, Alexander Stockton and Lucy King, described it as “a short film offering a firsthand perspective of the brutality of the pandemic inside a COVID-19 ICU.” For the video, several nurses at Valleywise Medical Center in Phoenix wore cameras as they attended the sickest COVID patients, many of whom did not recover.
As a doctor in the film notes, he comes by for a few minutes but the nurses are always there, for hours on end. Brushing patients’ teeth, changing catheters, holding hands in final moments so that patients don’t die alone.
Half a million deaths, and nurses have been there for nearly all of them. Nationwide, our nurses must be feeling bone-deep battle fatigue. COVID’s American death toll now surpasses that of World War II.
There are no words adequate to thank our nurses for their service during this year of isolation and loss. I will say it anyway. Thank you, thank you 555,298 times over.

Tags: #Art #COVID #eyes #nurses
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