A few unsung heroes


Elise Allen’s writing credits include TV, DVDs, internet shows, and books. She co-wrote Hilary Duff’s novel Elixir, which hit Number 10 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Elise’s debut solo young adult novel, Populazzi, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on August 1, 2011. She is a marathoner and lives with her family in southern California.

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It’ s probably cliché to say that nurses are the unsung heroes of our society, but when a loved one is hospitalized, you realize how incredibly true it is.

I’ve owed this post to Alicia and Matt for about three months now, and while I would never minimize my talent for procrastinating, in this case I was doing something else. I wasn’t writing about Kindness because I was too busy experiencing it.

Back in late October, my 91-year-old grandmother was diagnosed with a medical issue that required surgery. Surgery is never an easy choice for an elderly patient, but in this case it made sense, and it was what she wanted. She went into the hospital early in November, had a very successful procedure (yay!), and spent the next several days in the hospital recuperating.

It’ s not easy for an older senior to deal with anesthesia and its after-effects. As she slowly recovered, my grandmother was often delirious, and spun vast conspiracy theories that encompassed not only every employee at the hospital, but also my sister and I, who were with her every day. For awhile, she was convinced the entire staff was acting out roles I had written for them, and the entire hospital experience was actually a massive role-playing event I had engineered to test a plot for a new psychological thriller. As proof, she pointed to nurses at the station outside her door flipping through sheets of paper – clearly their script for the upcoming scene.

In other words, she was living Shutter Island. Her mind was a very trippy place. And it didn’t always make her the easiest patient. Yet nearly every nurse and aid went out of their way to make my grandmother feel safe, comfortable, and happy. She wasn’t just a body to them, but a frightened woman who needed their understanding and compassion even more than their medical expertise.

My sister is an RN, and she told me what a nurse’s workload is like. As a general rule, they’ re rewarded for their efficiency, not their bedside manner. There’ s tremendous pressure to get into a room, do what needs to be done, then get back out and on to the next patient. I knew this, and yet time and again I saw nurses who stopped everything to listen. I distinctly remember one nurse who spent – it felt like ages, though it was probably more like five minutes – at my grandmother’ s bedside. The nurse had already done everything medically necessary for my grandmother; now she just wanted to touch base and let my grandmother know someone in charge was listening.

My grandmother took this nurse’ s hand, looked into her eyes, and told her a long story about all her concerns … like the fact that she was being kept in the basement, which frightened her (she was on the top floor); the fact that there was no way she could go down to the dining room in a hospital gown (she thought she was home in the assisted living complex); and the fact that the other nurses were pressuring her to hire them as private staff, which wasn’t right (or true).

As my grandmother spoke, the nurse remained locked onto her eyes. She didn’t show the slightest sign of impatience or frustration. She smiled and nodded with deep understanding, assured her everything would be fine, and promised to take care of things. She didn’t leave the room until my grandmother was smiling, calm, and reassured.

“She’s so good,” my grandmother told me when the woman left. “That’ s why I hired her to be my private nurse.”

Yet while that nurse and so many others were lovely, no one compared to Ricardo, a.k.a. “her boyfriend.” He was the only male nurse we saw, and he doted on her (and on everyone else, I’m sure – he was just that kind of guy). Ricardo himself had just undergone major heart surgery less than a year ago, so he knew what it was like to be a patient. Every time he walked into my grandmother’s room, he made her feel like seeing her was the highlight of his day. There was no delirium when my grandmother was with him – they laughed and kibitzed like old friends, and when she was too embarrassed by her catheter to get up and walk for anyone else, she did it with Ricardo. They’ d stroll the halls together, chatting about every little thing, and for that short while, my grandmother felt almost back to normal.

It was a tough road for my grandmother even after she got out of the hospital. The delirium didn’t go away at first, and a frightening fall sent her to the emergency room on Thanksgiving day, where I was again moved to tears by the kindness of everyone around me. Though my grandmother hadn’t seriously hurt herself in the fall, she couldn’t be released without constant qualified care, and I didn’t want her to stay in the hospital a minute more than necessary. I had to track down a quality caregiver on no notice, in the middle of a major holiday. I did it … but only because several hospital staff members dropped everything to help me.

As for the caregivers themselves … I’ d need a whole new post to even scratch the surface of Dina, Marilu and Sahara, some of the most patient and compassionate women I have ever met in my life.

My grandmother moved to Los Angeles only six months ago, and since then every day has been a revelation. The circumstances of her move were less than ideal, but in the wild scramble to get her settled, I have met one beautiful stranger after another, all of whom were happy to go out of their way for a fellow human being. The nurses during her hospital stay and convalescence were only the latest in a long line of kind souls, and I’ m so grateful for the gift of their grace.

Oh – just so you know, my grandmother came through her recovery with flying colors. The delirium is gone completely, she’ s back to herself, living life on her own terms, and she’s absolutely unstoppable.

~Elise Allen

Next week, Lori Roy visits Quest For Kindness.

6 Responses to “A few unsung heroes”

  1. As a retired nurse I was most pleased to see nurses get the props they deserve. While nurses manage IV’s, change dressings, monitor vital signs, etc. it is really the person-to-person relationship that effects the outcome.
    Thanks, Elise, and tell your grandmother I said hi.

  2. BD says:

    It sounds like you’ve been a wonderful caregiver to your grandmother too, Elise! Thanks for spreading the kindness.

  3. There are many nurses in my life: mother, sister-in-law, cousins, friends. I still remember the nurses’ names who cared for me when I had a two-week hospital stay as a five-year-old. Thank you, Elise!

  4. Q says:

    My sister is a nurse volunteering for an Operation Smile mission in India right now. Megan will love this post. There are many who go undervalued in our society. We should appreciate nurses more. Everyone should check out Elise’s book this summer. Populazzi is a lot of fun. I blurbed it!

  5. Elise says:

    Scott — you’re 100% right — I firmly believe that the human connection nurses gives makes all the difference in a patient’s recovery. I have enormous respect for you and your profession.

    BD — Thanks! It’s been very cool having her so close. She even got to see my daughter’s most recent school play, which was crazy-adorable on all counts.

    Alicia — How scary to be in the hospital at age five! The nurses must have been a huge source of comfort.

    Q — Kudos to your sister! I’m sure she’s having a huge impact on people there. And thanks for the Populazzi shout-out!

  6. Paul says:

    Walking into a room and making someone feel like they are the highlight of your day is a really valuable skill. I try my best to do it as a teacher to gain the attention of kids and build rapport with them, but I bet coming from a nurse, there is some serious therapeutic value there as well.

    That’s awesome your grandmother came through and is still kicking it at 91. Thanks for sharing, Elise, I enjoyed your story.

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