It’s my weekend to work. I’m not sure if it’s the same elsewhere, but at my hospital, nurses work every other weekend. I used to loathe it, but the weekends are typically quieter. There’s less staff across the board, so there isn’t too much that goes on. It’s nice to not be managed for a few days, or have to fill-in several doctors on how their patient is and if they had a bowel movement yet. You know, the important stuff. It helps that I really enjoy the nurses that work the weekend with me. The whole floor could be complete chaos, but if you’re well supported, that all becomes more manageable.
Saturday was, well, trash. I was bombarded by patients being transferred in. I had challenging family members to deal with. I had a patient that showed up and they were coughing up blood. Within an hour of arriving, we also found out this patient had tuberculosis, which is a respiratory illness that spreads through the air. The amount of people exposed is unknown, but probably a large number. I was advised to get tested. So there’s that. Sunday, on the other hand, proved to be a gift. It went smoothly, I had fun with my colleagues, and I had way too much free time. For a nurse, that’s a weird place to be, but I also wasn’t about to complain. The weekend…a worthy opponent.
I had a patient who had the flu. The flu strain, this season, is pretty bad and it’s doing a number on the New York area. My patient was experiencing some of the cardinal signs of the flu; body aches and fluctuating body temperatures. Every movement hurt and it was a constant battle to get them to assist me in turning them or cleaning them. I totally get it. The flu is…defeating. In my patient’s case, it was so defeating that it stirred up other issues in their life outside of this illness. To try and steer the conversation to more neutral topics, I inquired about where they grew up, what they did for work, etc. The usual, easy questions to start with. I got a a few responses and then I thought I’d ask about family and if any visitors should be expected.
This evoked a not-so-positive response. I learned very quickly that the topic of family was touchy. My patient expressed that their family was anything but supportive. They would not be visiting. They didn’t communicate and they had been estranged for quite some time. My patient even told me about being a twin in the womb, but the other child was stillborn. It sounded like that whole situation followed them their whole life. This idea that the other child didn’t live and my patient had something to do with it. What better way to affirm someone’s misconception than to also alienate them growing up. At least that was the story that was being conveyed to me.
Oh, nursing, what a profession you are. The amount of hats we end up having to put on during the course of a shift. On this day, I had already played the alleged healer, the advocate, the bad guy, the-lady-that-pokes-me, the nurse (accurate), and now, the only person this patient had, at least in their eyes. What do you say in this moment? A question that comes up *very* often. Whelp, here’s what I went with:
“My dear, you’re not alone. I don’t know what your familial dynamics entail and all of the details of what might have caused them, but I am most certainly here for you.” Their response was some more statements of disbelief and how no one cares that they’re sick or wants to help. In another attempt to salvage whatever positive outlook they had on their life, I then said, “I’m here for you. Whatever you need, it’s my job to ensure those needs are met. I am fighting for you and doing all that I can to get you better and out of here. Have you ever considered that your life was spared for a reason? You are still a twin, despite your counterpart not surviving. Perhaps, that’s who you should live for. From now on, you can decide how you will live your life and for whom. Do it for your twin that didn’t have that choice.” My patient heard, maybe 75% of that, which I settled for. It would take a lot more than a few sentences to change someone’s way of thinking that had been negatively conditioned for many, many years. I knew that.
I felt for my patient. They’d been walking the earth for quite some time believing that they were alone. They had no spouse, no kids, no twin, and no relationship with their there siblings. Don’t sign me up for that place or having that lie follow me. Loneliness…it’s an emotion that is so prevalent today. I read an article that had some interesting statistics and facts on this topic. According to the article, 43% of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis, which yields a 45% increase in their risk of mortality. They expressed loneliness as being more dangerous than obesity and as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Those are pretty alarming statistics. Chemically, think about what 15 cigarettes a day does internally. Now, think of how loneliness also causes the same effects. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. The article even talks about how good friendships can actually *reduce* the risk of mortality or contracting certain diseases as well as speeding up recovery in a person who does fall ill. Wow. Who knew that relationships had that big of an impact, health-wise?
Knowing this, I truly felt sorry for my patient. I couldn’t make up for the years of their feeling lonely, but I thought about just being a friend. Ah, a new hat to put on and I wanted to wear it proudly. For the next two shifts, I made sure I was the best friend I could be without making it weird. I spent extra time with them and made sure I didn’t leave the room without addressing every need that I could meet. If I could help decrease some of those percentages in this person’s life by being their friend, well, then I was going to do it.
My last shift with them, I saw a difference in their demeanor and their speech. It wasn’t leaps and bounds away from where they previously resided, but it was steps forward and out of that place. I went in to say my goodbyes and my patient’s face didn’t reflect happiness or the usual annoyance, but slight sadness. They expressed feeling bummed that I was leaving and not coming back for a few days. All at once, I saw my attempts to bring this patient out of the pit, sort of pay off. It wasn’t until now that they expressed their gratitude. My patient lunged forward and grabbed me for a hug and then kissed my ear. They were going for the cheek but missed because I was resisting the embrace. I’ll admit, I wasn’t *super* excited that my patient with the flu had just done that, but hey, I’d hug my friends. I’ll leave the ear-kissing for a spouse or something, haha.
I don’t know if my patient left the hospital continuing to believe that their life had meaning or that they had a friend in me, but I was encouraged to see that there was life still in them. In two days, that patient hadn’t moved more than when they hurled themselves at me. Progress!
I left feeling thankful. Thankful that I had supportive colleagues to lessen the blow of those difficult shifts. I was thankful for all of the people in my life whether they were friends or family. How easily do we take people for granted? How often do we let ourselves believe we are alone? I’ve realized that loneliness, like all emotions, can lie to us. We are never truly alone, unless we allow ourselves to dwell there and stop trying to stay out of it. How do we steer clear of that place? Well, maybe, we treasure the people in our lives, more. We continue to cultivate healthy, meaningful relationships. We put in the work even when the going gets tough. We don’t let family members and friends slip through the cracks. We don’t allow ties to be severed over trivial matters. I understand that sometimes, remaining in relationship with people isn’t always feasible due to a multitude of factors; however, I do believe that if it means a lot to you that, that person be in your life, then you do everything you can to make it happen. I can’t promise it will yield the results you wanted, but I’d rather walk away saying I gave it my all and really, truly tried.
We need people, even for our health and there are statistics that prove it. Be the friend you want. Don’t let yourself wake up one day wondering why you’ve got no one in your corner. Relationships will always take work, but it will be worth it. Who knows, you might get a hug and a kiss on the ear in the process.
Here’s to my patient. I hope you’re free of the flu, hugging new friends and living life with a new outlook.
“The “Loneliness Epidemic.”” Health Resources & Services Administration, 10 Jan. 2019, www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic.