Secrets Nurses Keep
The drive to work is dark and early and quiet. I walk up a hill to reach the hospital, climb three flights of stairs, and enter my unit.
Who will I meet today? You?
I walk forward into my work day, into the sounds of machines and alarms, I assume the responsibility of your life the moment I arrive. It’s an invisible mantle, but its weight is undeniable.
I read about you. I read about your medical issues, I read about your wishes in the case of an emergency, I read the results of your tests, I read if you have family or not, I read about the plan for your life and longevity, I read between the lines. The beginning of many secrets.
Then, I meet you. You give me your arm for a blood pressure, and I give you your potions and lotions. I am constantly alert, carefully balancing conversation with the possibility of having to resuscitate you at any moment. The secret I am keeping is that I am checking the room to make sure it is supplied for an emergency. The other secret I am keeping is that I can tell by looking at you if you will be that emergency. I have already chosen the next vein in your arm should we need to administer life saving medications.
I keep the secret of seeing you in sickness. We are not at our best when we are sick. But I forgive you; you might be in pain, you might be past your breaking point, you might be straight up scared. You are the one in the bed after all, not me.
I keep secret my questions about out you. I wonder who you were, who you are, or who you could have been. I have a limited context for knowing you, especially in this pandemic, where I am seeing you without the context of your loved ones at your bedside.
Sometimes we laugh. I keep your secret in witnessing the biggest bowel movement you have ever produced. Sometimes we tear up as we watch a commercial on the TV as I adjust your machines, and you keep my secret of crying while on the job. Sometimes we are blunt with each other when there’s no time or energy for pleasantries, and we keep each others’ secret of our lack of tact.
Sometimes I don’t know what to say. But I try to be present with you. I hope you feel safe, looked after, cared for. I am here to help you get to where you need to be, whether that’s to live or to die. And I hope you find peace either way.
The fifth vital sign is physical pain. For some of you, I know that the physical pain is nothing compared to the pain within, the pain I don’t ask you about. When I offer you only a tylenol, it breaks my own heart a little. You need comfort, you need answers, you need peace, you need hope. You need your fucking loved ones. But in being your bridge to them, I am also the guard between you, as we live through this pandemic.
The secret that nurses keep is that we remember and that we care. We are trained to think and to act, to focus and to perform. We have to, to keep you safe. But the compassion catches up with us. Sometimes it’s immediately when we get into our car and we realize what we just saw. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night when we wake up wondering if you are still living. Sometimes it’s well after a period of time and we find ourselves undone thinking about what we witness and what we have to do.
There have been thousands of you.
And your secrets are safe with me.