Original text: New York, February 2005
March 2012- revised version for the Nursing 2012 March edition
IN EVERY ED, there are two true constants. One is that patients come and go, no matter what the weather, in the dead of night and most certainly at change of shift when the ED is in gridlock. Another is that despite all the frustration and high-intensity stress, we, as nurses, care.
We care, even for our “frequent fliers.”
One of the regulars
Mr. G was one of our most frequent visitors. With a long history of alcoholism, he showed up at our hospital every day, delivered by the emergency medical technicians or staggering in on his own, asking to be taken to the ED.
Mr. G was part of our daily lives. We showered him, lectured him, fed him, and discharged him before he went into withdrawal.
The ED social worker tried to place him in a local shelter, but he rarely stayed long. Sometimes he’d be admitted to the hospital for management of his withdrawal symptoms, in part to give him time to heal, but also to reassure ourselves that we were doing our best for him. In our naïveté and optimism, we hoped that someday Mr. G would hit rock bottom and reverse his life’s downward spiral. But he didn’t want to detox and refused admissions to rehab.
Mr. G was unlike most other alcohol abusers who frequented our ED. He never was violent, never cursed us, never hit us. He just couldn’t seem to stay sober long enough to go home.
Road to recovery?
Once, we didn’t see Mr. G for a month. All the nurses kept asking about him. We thought that maybe he’d relocated or was tired of being brought over and over again to our hospital. It turned out that the social worker had finally convinced Mr. G to enter rehab, and he had a job. One day he surprised us all when he walked, with a steady gait, into the ED. Sober and smiling, he blushed and grinned from ear to ear as we stopped and greeted him. We high-fived with him and gave him words of encouragement. We felt there was hope.
A month later, however, Mr. G returned to the ED drunk and seizing. And so the cycle continued once again.
Gesture of faith
Just after the New Year, emergency medical workers found Mr. G on a street at dawn, unconscious with a core temperature of 35ºC. He was brought into the ED and the team worked on him for 2 1/2 hours. We thought he’d eventually wake up, as he always did. But his luck finally ran out.
His mother and brother came. They said they’d tried to get him help for years, but he’d always refused their offers. He chose to live on the street. They didn’t have enough money for a burial, and their only option was Potter’s Field in Hart Island, N.Y., where unknown people and indigents are laid to rest. It’s not open to public, and Mr. G’s family wouldn’t be allowed to visit his grave.
One of the nurses started to collect money to help defray burial expenses for our frequent flier. The ED nurses opened their hearts, without question. Even though it was too late to save Mr. G, the last humane thing we could do was help him be laid to rest, to give him a final good-bye.
It was a beautiful gesture, something that reaffirmed my faith that, whatever reasons that have made us choose nursing as a profession, the one true thing is that we do care.
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