Scoundrel Time

Why I Do What I Do: A Nurse Anesthetist Waits

Heroism? Duty? Selflessness? Responsibility? Christian kindness?

I’d love for any one of those to be true. I’d love to feel like a hero.

But they aren’t and I’m not.

I became a nurse because I flunked out of art school and needed a vocation. My mom, a nurse, suggested it wouldn’t be difficult and I could always make an honest living.

I became a nurse anesthetist because, though the two-year graduate school and residency required significantly more work, it was still far less of a commitment than four years of medical school and a three-year residency.

On my first humanitarian mission while in the United States Air Force, I discovered the selfish, heady feeling of being a savior to the afflicted.

On the battlefield, just doing my job somehow garnered me what felt a lot like worship.

Then I fell in love with a truly selfless woman, and my life changed.  A beginning of seeing outside myself. The start of opening myself to considering another.

But it wasn’t complete.

Then pregnancy. Followed by the diagnosis of leukemia at twenty-five weeks and the realization that I would lose her.

Watching as an anesthesia provider, doing my best to block out the knowledge that I’d gained, while an anesthesiologist drugged her into incoherence and the surgeon cut; watching the fine spray of blood as the doctor cut her cord and our wrinkled three-pound child emerged.  The overwhelming relief and simultaneous grief I felt when I looked down at my wife, her head completely bald from chemo, her eyes twitching back and forth; her lips parted, mouthing words I could not understand, knowing she would never remember the thing she’d wanted most in her life to accomplish. More than becoming a doctor, more than marrying me.

Holding that fragile being and understanding for the first time what it meant for someone to be completely reliant on me, feeling the weight already of being a father and a widower at the same time.

Later, I watched the love of my life die slowly: wasting, fading, finally suffocating until there was no light left, only the ghost of her.

I operate under the assumption that I will be infected by COVID-19. I am not remotely frightened by that. Even as I take my laryngoscope and place it in my patient’s mouth and look directly down their throat, knowing that they will die without it, but also knowing that the microscopic virus is most concentrated there, and that after performing enough of these hopefully lifesaving procedures, I will inevitably be infected.  I’ve never been terribly conscious of personal consequences. But I am frightened that I might pass it on to my mom or my dad or someone’s grandmother or grandfather or, God forbid, an at-risk child.

I am terribly afraid of being quarantined alone without my daughter, on whom I’ve relied as sometimes my only reason for being good or even for being alive.

Why do I wait here ready to go into battle against this monstrous disease, when I know exactly what is to come?

I do it because of my frequent nightmares about my personal battlefield, the mission where I experienced resource-rationing on a real scale, and by “resource-rationing” I mean telling a Kurdish teenager who’d been shot through the spine, after we saved his life, that we had to withdraw his ventilator, the one thing that was allowing him to live, because we only had two vents in the entire hospital. He was fifteen years old, handsome, gregarious, and head-over-heels in love with his ICU nurse.

It is a horrible thing to choose to withdraw life support—to see the light go out in someone’s eyes, to see them struggle to breathe, to watch their skin go from pink to gray. I still see their faces at night.

Why do I wait? I do it for my late wife and the image of her suffering and struggling for breath, like I know my COVID patients will. And I do it selfishly to please the vestiges of her that remain in the universe around me. Hoping one last time for her slightest nod of approval.

I do it for my now 16-year-old daughter, again selfishly, to provide my idea of a good example. Dreaming that one day she’ll give me the same nod.

 

 

 

 

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