Many years ago, on a Thanksgiving Day when I had to work the holiday at Children’s in Chicago, it was no ordinary day. While two of my sisters and a brother-in-law were visiting from out of town and home with Jason, holding off dinner until I got home after 3:30 p.m., I was in the NICU with a newborn baby who was dying. Her father was at her bedside, but her mother was in another hospital, trying to recover from a difficult delivery. Her baby had been swept from her side and transported to Children’s in hopes of being saved. The baby’s father was driving back and forth between the two hospitals, trying to hold his family together.
Even with all the amazing technology we nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists and pharmacists had at our fingertips, it wasn’t enough to overcome the severe condition this little one was born with. When everything we’d done for the baby still couldn’t save her, when she was slipping away in spite of our efforts, the doctor removed the heart-lung machine and ventilator and we placed the baby in her daddy’s arms for their final goodbye, so she would feel and know his love until her very last moment. He held her and sobbed against her little body, and everyone of us in that room was moved. Watching the anguish spilling from that dear man holding his precious child as she left this world was heartbreaking.
When I got home from my shift and it was time to eat our Thanksgiving feast, I had a hard time transitioning to the festivities. I took a walk around Lincoln Park to try to process the day and adjust to being back in my own life. I realized then that if I was going to survive being a nurse to babies and children and mothers who sometimes died, I was going to have to protect myself somehow, and to do it without losing my ability to provide compassion and care. It was then that I started to realize that we each have crises in life, and I couldn’t take on everyone else’s as though they were my own crisis. If I internalized every death like it was the loss of my own loved one, I wouldn’t make it past Christmas. More than anything else, it was in the realization of the concept, the awareness of it, that helped me cope better with future tragedies I witnessed. I didn’t need to stuff down any feelings. I just had to realized I’d have my own hardships along the journey of life, and when those came, I’d have to face them as my own. And in the meantime, as I encountered others experiencing calamity, I could walk alongside them without personal collapse because the struggle came with perspective. My life wasn’t being altered like theirs was, and I could then stand with them as an anchor, as a lifeline, as they wondered how they would even keep breathing.
And then much later, when I was the one wondering how I would keep breathing, I had people at my side who knew how to be anchors. It’s a great gift when you see that hand reaching into the cloud of confusion or pain enshrouding you and offering a lifeline. We all take turns. We all help each other along this journey. It’s a relay race, and we hold the baton as long as we can. And when we can’t anymore, someone else takes it and we rest. Or collapse. Sometimes in a puddle of grief. And then someone puts their arm around us and helps us through, sometimes limping, sometimes carried. So there always is one more thing we can do. And that is hold each other up, and help one another keep breathing. We’re all on the same team.
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