My heart went out to Ralph. He had a big meaty nose like my own Grandpa who unfortunately, died when I was 5 years old. Ralph was so sweet and he looked similar to my own Grandpa. We hit it off from day one and I cared for him numerous times when he was admitted with heart failure. Ralph’s wife brought things from home when she visited, his own pajamas, his own slippers, these comforts helped to make a lousy situation more bearable. And then when visiting hours were over and the hospital would quiet down for the night, I would help him get ready for sleep. I’d turn down the covers, help him wash his face and brush his teeth (these basics could really tire him out) and even lift his swollen legs up into the bed and pull up the covers. He would talk to me about his family and the farm and his grandchildren and how he knew he didn’t have a lot of time left here. And I listened. He talked about a few regrets but mostly he talked about his family.
One time around the holidays Ralph’s wife brought me a gift, a blue and white hand-knit scarf that she made just for me. That was the best present that year. Over time, I could see Ralph’s slow and steady decline. And he could feel it. It was hard to watch without feeling sad myself and yet I put on the face of hope and smiled and continued to listen to whatever it was that he needed to talk about to clear his mind. And one day I came into work and saw a newspaper clipping from the obituary section hanging in the report room, not unusual for nurse’s break rooms, and I saw Ralph’s name. He had passed the day before. I couldn’t believe it. I know I read it but I couldn’t believe it. He had been so sick so many times and with each hospital discharge, I knew I would see him again, like always.
After I reflected on his life, I knew what I had to do. I paid my respects at his wake. It was the first time I went to pay my respects to one of my patients after they died. When I got to the casket and saw Ralph’s wife, I could barely keep it together. Tears and words came out at the same time. She hugged me and then stepped back and held both my hands in hers as she said to her children “This is the nurse. This is Karen. This is the one your Dad talked about all the time.” She turned back to me and said “I am so glad you’re here Karen, he loved you so much. He said you were like one of his grandchildren.” I remember meeting each of her children and a few more hugs and the eyes of strangers turning to see who I was and whispering to each other. And then I made a bee line for the door so I could retreat to the safety of my car and once inside I began to sob. My heart really hurt this time. I wouldn’t have traded it though.
I have a greater appreciation for the hearts of scruffy old men and the wisdom of their years and the vulnerability in sharing their stories with me. The next year at Christmas our hospital raised funds with memorial ornaments. For a small donation the name of a loved one was displayed on an ornament and placed on the huge Christmas tree in our hospital’s lobby. I smiled each time I passed the ornament with Ralph’s name.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Karen Kopan, the owner of Intensive Karen, has over 30 years of ICU experience as a medical professional and has guided tens of thousands of families in making difficult life and death decisions. If you or someone you love doesn’t have their wishes understood and well documented, and would like additional information or a complimentary consultation, email me at [email protected] or call me at (847) 901-3888.
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