Keeping Score

My friend Nick told me this story of the time he was hospitalized with a bad infection. It was 3am and as his body struggled to fend off impending septicemia, he was in the throes of night sweats and feverish dreams. His nurse came into the room and, seeing that he had soaked his pillow with sweat, replaced his pillow case with a clean one. In his semi-delirious state, this simple action prompted my friend to exclaim: “You’re an angel!”

There are a lot of different ways to keep score as a nurse. A lot of people go by how many lives they’ve saved. In fact, when I was a nursing student in clinicals my mom used to ask me if I had “saved any lives that day.” (Answer: “No. They’ll die of something else later. But I definitely prolonged some.”) Nick, on the other hand, always asks if anyone told me I’m an angel.

I keep score this way. So far, my score is 3.5.

It’s actually a pretty difficult metric. “You’re an angel” is not the most common expression of appreciation. And even if I allow myself the conceit that at least a few of my patients think it, it probably takes a special person to actually say it out loud. Fortunately, most of my patients are on drugs so they are all pretty special a lot of the time.

And that is why nursing is so great. You do these very, very simple things for people and it means the world to them because they are in such a vulnerable place. The very simple things that have gotten me my 3.5 points are:

-Giving my patient a cup of ginger ale with ice.
-Washing my patient’s feet. (When he thanked me, I said “I follow a guy who is big on foot washing.”)
-Praying with my patient when she was anxious.
-Helping my patient get into bed without hurting her incision. (Actually she said “You’re soooooooo niiiiiiice.” so I’m taking it as just half a point. This is also a good example of the drugs talking.)

It strikes me that it’s the easiest things that have this kind of impact on people. You don’t have to catch an impending heart attack or stop your patient’s carotid artery from rupturing with your bare hands (I wouldn’t advise doing that, anyway). Just get them something to drink. Make them feel a little more human. Be a comforting presence. Help them with a task they can’t do on their own.

We started having some electrical problems at the place we just bought. Most of the house lost power, and the circuit breaker board was slowly but surely becoming non-functional. I had no idea what was wrong, how bad it would be when we figured it out, or how much it would cost us. It dogged me like a suspicious lump that was steadily getting bigger and the doctors hadn’t figured out yet.

When the electrician came by this morning, he did some tests, adjusted some wiring, fixed the problem, and let us know that while some more work needed to be done eventually, our house was not going to blow up, burn down, or blackout in the near future.

My sense of relief was palpable. I told him “you just made me feel physically better.” Which maybe sounded really weird, but that’s how I felt, and I wasn’t even on narcotics. Here I was, Nurse Ferris, in a vulnerable place with a problem I didn’t understand, and in doing his job right, this electrician did a very simple thing that gave me great relief.

So it made me realize that I’m not in such a privileged position as I thought I was in nursing. There are a lot of ways to be vulnerable, and a lot of simple gestures that have tremendous significance when done in the right place, in the right way, at the right time. I don’t know how electricians keep score, but the one I saw today definitely gets a point from me.