When people ask me what my job is like, I have a hard time coming up with an answer. I am a nurse in a pediatric intensive-care unit, so the definition of a good day is relative to the condition of my patients, and a bad day is usually too hard to describe. But one thing that I can always convey is that my patients and their families often do more for me than I do for them.
Recently, the Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf spoke in a talk he gave about his mother’s passing. He mentioned a letter he received from her oncologist, Suhail Obaji, who wrote that “my visits with her were a treat to my soul. She gave me a comfort and tranquility that in reality made me realize that she was the doctor and I was the patient.”
I am blessed to come across people who make me feel like this almost every day. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here is my gratitude to these parents and their children.
For your compassion. To the 7-year-old with cystic fibrosis happily playing with her self-made crown and plastic jewels, until she saw a boy rolling by in a wheelchair. The next thing I knew, she was making him a crown, and never did she look more royal to me.
To the mother crying because she was afraid of losing her daughter, but who, in the same breath, offered me snacks and apologized that I wasn’t able to eat because I was so busy taking care of her daughter.
To the parents mourning their toddler who had just passed away. They asked us to please take the condolence food basket that the hospital gave them because they didn’t have time to get us anything. Thank you for your shining compassion during even your darkest hours.
For warming my heart with your innocence. To the 6-year-old girl I brought to the operating room for liver surgery. She asked me with her wide, solemn eyes, “But what will happen to my toys?” I assured her that they would still be in her room when she returned.
To the 2-year-old patient with a respiratory disease who we successfully resuscitated. As soon as he came to, he peered around the room, and his tiny voice demanded, “iPad!” — stirring a mixture of laughs and cries throughout the room.
To the girl who had cancer and was offered whatever she wanted during her last days of life. Her dying wish was for orange ice pops. The unit freezer suddenly had a surplus of red, green, blue and purple ice pops as the nurses took turns buying boxes and weeding out her favorite flavor. Thank you for showing me the charm in the little things.
For showing me your extraordinary endurance through ordinary life. To the man who looked so familiar to me on my commute home from work one morning. Dressed in a shirt and tie, he held on to the pole in the subway, nodding off every few seconds. I realized he was the father of my patient and he had stayed up with me all night trying to soothe his son. I was going straight to bed after that rough night, but he was going straight to work.
To the investment banker who spent the day crunching numbers at work and the night meticulously analyzing the values from his son’s daily bloodwork and continuous dialysis.
To the father who was a taxicab driver throughout the night and during the days took his son for wheelchair rides around the unit. Thank you for reminding me to be kind to the everyday people I come across in life, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.
For making me laugh. To the girl who discovered that her shortness of breath was from a cancerous tumor near her airway. She came back to visit and asked me how life was going. I told her I was relieved my midterm was over. “I can finally breathe,” I said. “You and me both,” she replied with a smile.
To our 9-year-old patient who loved joking with the staff. I bought her a joke book, naively thinking it would be a perfect gift. She respectfully declined because she didn’t want to inadvertently steal anyone’s material.
To the developmentally delayed 11-year-old who heaved in laughter anytime someone shook their booty in front of him. And to the team of surgeons who walked by as I was doing that and stifled their smiles. Thank you for showing me that a little humor can go a long way.
For sharing your vulnerability. To the boy who has lived with a crippling disease since birth. When asked for a school assignment to list his top three wishes, two of them were for toys that 10-year-old boys want. The last line read, “To be able to walk.”
To the mother crying because everyone had posted pictures of their children’s first day of school. She was grappling with the reality that she would never again have pictures like that of her son after a surgery complication altered his neurological status forever.
To the girl who kept summoning me to her room, asking me to hand her this, pass her that. Eventually there was no item left to ask for, and she revealed what she really wanted: “Can you sit with me? I don’t want to be alone.” Thank you for showing me how brave it is to be vulnerable.
For challenging me. To the teen girl who was angry at her disease. Day after day, we tried to engage her. But she was steadfast in her silent treatment. Until one afternoon, when she kicked her leg in my direction. I thought she was lashing out. But she was pointing out her new pedicure. I internally celebrated as I casually complimented the color.
To the boy who became quadriplegic at 13 after he stopped breathing from an asthma attack. He would blink once to say yes and give me a blank stare for no. Glancing at the pictures of him in the room as a cool skateboarder, I asked whether he wanted me to play some music and told him I thought he was a One Direction kind of guy. He gave me a wide and panicked stare. I laughed and told him I was joking. For the first time, he smiled back with those eyes. Thank you for showing me that the bigger the barriers are, the more people need those barriers to be broken.
For showing me what it means to embody grace. To the mother who didn’t want her daughter to suffer and signed a do-not-resuscitate form. Her daughter passed away while she was gone. She was called to come back, and I knew she would bump into me first. I rehearsed what I would say in my head. When she walked in, we made eye contact and I froze. As my voice cracked, she shook her head as if to say, “It’s okay, you don’t have to say more,” and through her tears, whispered, “Thank you.”
To the mother who came to visit us. I last saw her when we discharged her son to rehab. I asked how he was, and she gave me a peculiar look, wondering if I meant her son who was well. “You didn’t hear,” she said. That’s when a wave of anguish washed over me. She sensed how shaken up I was and immediately took out her phone to show me videos of him dancing in bed during his last days. She was the grieving mother, yet she was consoling me. “I’m so sorry,” I said to her. “I know,” she replied. To these mothers, thank you for showing me strength when I couldn’t be strong for you.
For showing me that love is love is love. Thank you to the parents who found solace in one another’s company at the hospital. Even if one person spoke Spanish and the other Mandarin, they still comforted each other, making each other tea, offering hopeful smiles. The language of grief is universal.
I have seen every race, religion and walk of life come through our unit. But no one’s paying attention to that, and it’s the most beautiful kind of silver lining. In this sort of tragic utopia, Christians and Muslims and Jews all treat each other, pray for each other and cry for each other. The single mom, the two dads, the nuclear family, the corporate lawyer and homeless mother, they all fight for their children, and everyone else unequivocally joins their fight. Thank you all for allowing me to see such heartening things in an otherwise currently disheartening state of affairs.
I look forward to feasting with my family this Thanksgiving. And as I count my blessings, I’ll be thinking of all of the patients who have a special place in my heart. I’ll be thinking of those who are in the hospital for the holiday, whether they are recovering, or waiting, or barely hanging on. Knowing each one of them has been, indeed, a treat to my soul.
Shazia Memon is a pediatric critical care nurse in New York City.