They say you always remember your first death.
As nurses, we see a lot of people die. That’s part of our job. We get to experience life in its best and its worst moments, and death is a big part of that. Eventually, we see enough of life’s worst moments that we become calloused to them, and they don’t affect us as deeply anymore. But new nurses don’t have callouses yet. And we all know that we have to watch out for the first death.
My first death was months ago. An elderly patient who was well loved and well cared for. I thought that I would be sad about it, but I wasn’t. The patient had a good, long life, and was surrounded by a loving family. I kept waiting for the feelings of sadness to wash over me, but they never came. I almost teared up as the hospital chaplain prayed with the family, but just as I was about to cry, an alarm went off that I had to silence. Work comes before emotions when you’re in the hospital.
I’ve had a few deaths since then. Some were sadder than others, but nothing that made me cry after I got home. At-Home-Crying is the easiest way for me to judge my emotional involvement. People tell me all the time that I have to learn to leave work at work and not take it home with me. Maybe that’s a skill that comes with becoming calloused. I try, I really do try. Most days I succeed. Today, I have not succeeded.
I picked up an extra shift at work today. I didn’t have to work, but I chose to–partly because we were short-staffed–but mostly because I really liked the patients that I worked with yesterday. Liking the patients that you’re working with makes all the difference in how difficult your day is. If you’re working with patients that are incessantly auditioning to play opposite Walter Matthau in the next Grumpy Old Men, it makes for a long day. If you’re working with sweet, gentle families, days go quickly and smoothly. I had sweet, gentle families and good patients yesterday, so I chose to come back today and work with them again.
Nobody died on my shift today. When I agreed to come to work today, it had never occurred to me that someone passing away on my shift was even a possibility. As soon as I realized that death was (not just possible, but) imminent, I prayed constantly that nobody would die on my shift. I really, really didn’t want anyone to die on my shift. But as the shift started to draw to a close, it became very evident that my prayer was being answered in a literal way. The patient was not going to die… on my shift. The night shift nurse was going to have to do their own interceding if they wanted to change their fate.
It’s hard to say why some patient’s situations hit home and others don’t. There are some reasons for my emotional reaction that I understand, and there are others that I don’t. All I really understand tonight is that I am having the reaction that I expected to have months ago when my first patient die. I am having this reaction even though it wasn’t my first time, and even though nobody died on my watch.