(I'm a nurse. This is an essay, written during my tenure as a staff nurse in a hospital; all the names have been changed).
Melinda had a grand mal seizure in the nursing station today.
I was giving report to Sheryl just around the corner from a full view of the station when Barbara came running out, screaming for help.
We quickly turned the corner, and there was Melinda, on the floor, on her back, in the middle of the largest grand mal seizure I have ever witnessed. Her back was arched, her hands clenched in fists, her mouth clamped shut, and she was jerking in spasms on the floor, her eyes vacant and distant, staring straight ahead.
My brain could not quite comprehend what my eyes were seeing: Melinda did not belong on the floor. She had been walking, talking, working down the hall from me all day. Her beautiful mocha-colored skin turned progressively darker as her diaphragm muscles clamped down hard and breathing ceased.
A code blue had already been called. Within seconds the station exploded with activity. A doctor who had quietly been making evening rounds ran in and took command. Oxygen. IV site. Stretcher. Electrodes. Monitor.
The code team arrived. Melinda was cyanotic, her lips a deep dark blue, still not breathing. “She’s got a pulse, she’ll be ok, where’s that oxygen, relax everybody, she’s got a pulse, I can see it in her throat, where’s that oxygen, get a line started, where’s that oxygen, we need oxygen”. Variously cajoling, barking and reassuring, the doctor kept up a running dialogue.
The code team was in full swing, and the station was full of people. It was evening shift change, so there were two shifts of nurses on the floor, and two charge nurses. The house supervisor showed up, as well as the code team doctor from the ER.
Those of us not on the code team stood by, keeping a respectful distance. Patients came out of their rooms and watched through the station’s windows. Other doctors, who had also been making rounds, stood by.
We were all stunned. In one swift instant, Melinda was transformed from being “one of us”, a healthy caretaker, to being “one of them”, a patient. She lay on the floor, helpless before our gaze. She was raised up onto a stretcher, dependent for her life on the care of her co-workers. She lay on the floor, naked, but not of clothes. She lay naked in her seizure, in front of God and everybody.
After what seemed like an eternity, Melinda suddenly began to breath. As she came out of the seizure and into the post-seizure stage, she began to scream. She writhed. She screamed louder and louder, unaware of herself, or her surroundings. She resisted the hands of her caretakers, she pushed the oxygen mask off her face.
She regained awareness slowly, intermittently distressed and calm, but still not aware of what had happened to her, what was going on around her.
She requested her glasses, and someone got them. She tried to get off the stretcher. She was told to stay on the stretcher, that she had just had a seizure and she yelled, screamed, cried. “I want to go home, I just want to go home”.
She was not herself. She was acutely distressed. She continued to wrestle, to resist, to cry. In the hallway, staff members, patients, and visitors stood shock-still, or crying, or holding each other. Melinda was known to most of the patients, and many of the visitors and family members. Nobody wanted to see this happen to her.
Melinda is a very tiny, very thin, beautifully brown-skinned, young RN who “smokes like a fiend”. Her attitude toward work is also a little young; she is as not as careful as she should be, and it has gotten her into minor trouble from time to time.
But she’s likeable. I’ve never seen her stressed or lose her temper. So it was deeply disturbing to see her there on the floor, spasms violently shaking her tiny little body. It was disturbing because it was Melinda, it was disturbing because she’s “one of us”, and it was disturbing because she had so quickly morphed into a patient.
As nurses, we see the scary and painful side of human life, illness, and death every day. We can’t turn away, or pretend we don’t know. And though most of us feel compassion for our patients, an honest nurse will tell you that there is always an unconscious element of “thank God it’s not me, not my mother, my father, my brother, my child”.
We walk into the hospital to work everyday, but we walk back out at the end of our shift, into the sunlight, whether our shift ends at dawn or at dusk. Our patients stay behind, many of them trapped inside bodies that will not heal.
Today, I went home. Melinda went to the ICU.
I drove home sad, sad for me, sad for her. If she’s still admitted tomorrow, I’ll stop in and see her. But I’ll never forget her tiny, frail body on the floor, and the fact that, even in a hospital where I am surrounded by death and dying every day, I was once again reminded that we are all tiny, all frail, and that good health is a fleeting and pale gift.
When your feet hit the floor in the morning, count your blessings. Before you eat your daily bread, count your blessings. When your head hits the pillow at night, count your blessings. Life is temporary.