Posted by: getthenac | March 2, 2011

Tender care for a tender heart

Nathan and mom

Nathan and his Mother, Mandy Roberts

from Carole Bartoo:

I may be a little biased, but I don’t think we give our nurses enough credit.

Recently I experienced evidence of the hard work and incredible caring of nurses— people who are the “face” of day-to-day medical care— and came to understand them a little better, and to appreciate them more.

Nathan Roberts’ father, James, was looking forward to his son finally receiving a new heart. It was January and his toddler boy had spent most of his first year and a half of life at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Finally the wait was over, but James said something a little unexpected: “Leaving here is going to be hard. It’s like family.”

Leaving the hospital meant leaving the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (PCICU). Leaving the nursing staff who had been there for them over the last eight months. Leaving something that had been a lifeline to him and his family in a deeper way than most people could ever know.

Because Nathan had an experimental device—the Berlin Heart—implanted in his chest to keep him alive and healthy, the toddler had been confined here for more than half his life. Every move meant a possible kink in an air hose that kept the pump going. Even a trip outside his room was off limits for most of his stay because a tug at the wrong tube at the wrong time could mean death.

Nathan’s mother, Mandy, only left the hospital a handful of times during that stretch to return to Alabama where the family and her two older daughters reside. This was a family that could not, and would not leave Nathan, in this time of stress.

So they leaned heavily on bright and caring staff members who were right there– in that small critical care room with them, living literally elbow to elbow with them as they kept Nathan healthy, stable, and well enough to receive a heart.

And the staff leaned on them a little too. Time and time again I heard staff talk about their love for Nathan. In a unit where babies are often unconscious, and children struggle with life or death situations day-in-and-day-out… Nathan was always there, hanging out in his crib: a ‘normal,’ playful baby.

Nurses would pop their heads around the corner as they passed by his room just to illicit his little expression of delight.

Nathan had his favorites, and his favorites knew it. (There were a lot of favorites). One of them was Ashley Sterling, R.N., one of the family’s “primaries” (nurses assigned to Nathan’s care most often). On the very night of Nathan’s transplant surgery, Ashley was among several nurses who came to the hospital during her off hours to cheer the family.

Ashley and a colleague

Ashley and a colleague wait with the family

But that night Ashley belonged to Lauren and Hannah Roberts. Ashley sat with the girls, who hugged her like a favorite aunt. Lauren and Hannah got to stay up late as their little brother finally received his new heart. So there they were on the empty 3rd floor surgical waiting area at 10pm on Jan. 12.

The worried parents and grandparents sat near by, but Ashley had the girls occupied. The girls broke out into a dance (you can see it here on the video)


Image from the video

Ashley interviews the girls

“Now dip her just like we showed you,” Ashley said as the girls twirled by hand in hand, breaking into giggles after an awkward dip.

It was such a fun and ordinary moment to see at such an extraordinary time.

But I knew what Ashley had in the back of her mind. Just down the hall, Nathan’s chest lay open, waiting for the donor heart that was on its way from somewhere down south. Anything could happen. No one knows that better than a critical care nurse or staff member.

Anyone with less courage would be far away; perhaps holding their breath hoping it all would come out ok, perhaps trying to stay distracted and not think about it. But Ashley was right there. She and the other staff members from the unit face risks like this head on, somehow able to express love, comfort and a sense of playfulness to help others while a life they love too hangs in the balance.

It seems to me to be an especially courageous kind of love. After all, you’d have to assume that if Nathan was among the sickest of the sick, he might die. And if lucked smiled and they succeed in getting him better, the family would head home to Alabama and would try to forget this awful time, and so he’d be gone.

Either way a nurse like Ashley knows she’ll have some measure of pain to face real soon. Even if it’s a sweet goodbye as a healthy toddler heads home to live life.

Still, Ashley and her colleagues are right there, choosing to go beyond being a nurse and become an extension of family… unconditionally.

It’s a good thing too, because without caring people like Ashley, who see their work as much more than just a job, the Roberts family, with no other option, would have had to face this alone.


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