Name: RN Clara Hart
Formerly stationed in: a civilian military hospital in the U.S.
Email: [email protected]
It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since I left my career as a civilian nurse in a military hospital. Nine years I spent caring for war wounded troops and their families. So many memories; wonderful, encouraging memories and others filled with deep, heartbreaking sorrow. The names of the dead float through my mind as I write. This story is a tribute to all those who have given their lives, for those they left behind, and to those who look in the face of their war-given disabilities and find success.
Many months before I actually left the ICU, friends had begun asking if it wasn’t time I took a break, did something different. They would mention how sad I seemed or how stressed I was, or how often I cried. They didn’t know about the nightmares that plagued my sleep or the knot in my stomach that never went away. Despite those things I wasn’t ready to leave; I loved what I did and knew I made a difference. I was staying until they didn’t need me anymore. Then one day I no longer had a choice.
For some months I'd been assigned a patient, and was caring for him and his family. He was a young service member injured in the line of duty, with no chance of meaningful survival. He had an equally young, naïve wife without any idea how to care for herself, their two-year-old daughter, or the baby she carried. Yet, when the time came, she somehow made decisions at 20 years of age that those decades older are unable to make. She chose to honor his wishes and allow him to die. She stood up against his family, who cursed her decisions. She carried herself with her head high even as that same family abused her to the point where the sight of military police became common in the ICU. For months I watched this, caring for him, encouraging and supporting her, hugging the bright two-year-old when she came to see her dada.
One day the wife asked me, “Will you be the nurse who is with us when we stop everything?”
Many times I have been asked that exact question. It’s a double-edged sword really, for it shows the deep connection made with the family, their need for you to be there with them in one the worst times of their lives, and in some ways it is an honor. Few are allowed into that particular circle. The other edge of the sword is the one that cuts you to shreds as you struggle to do your job. A job that requires you live up to the expectations of a grieving family and show the compassion they require, when all you want to do is curl up in a ball with your own sorrow.
The night before the end, I encouraged a young wife to snuggle up to her husband’s side, and watched as she wrapped her arms around him and fell asleep. The following day I returned, only this time it was my arms that held her as I softly told her, “Yes, he is dead.”
The funeral followed, and as I stood in Arlington National Cemetery I thought about how the many times I had been there, honoring and remembering as Honor Guards carried flag-draped caskets, the other nurses and hospital staff standing side by side as we continued to care for our patients the only way we now could -- by supporting their families and friends.
In the following two months, we had to withdraw care for two additional warriors and allow them to die. I began to cry every day, and for the very first time I didn’t want to go to work. I was irritable and angry and rarely slept through the night. One day I inadvertently slighted a junior physician, and suddenly the choice to leave or stay was no longer mine.
I didn’t look for another job, I didn’t work; I took care of my family and I healed. One day my phone rang and the young wife, now a widow, asked for my help. I struggled with her request because, as nurses, as professionals, there is an unspoken rule that says “Do not get involved with patients and their families outside of the work environment." But my faith dictated I help her, for my Christian beliefs and God said "Help the widows and the orphans." This young, courageous widow did not know how to care for herself, and, encumbered with grief, loneliness, and despair, was hospitalized with malnutrition and a baby in distress. My church family came alongside her, encouraging, supporting, teaching life skills, having baby showers for the unborn youngest daughter and birthday parties for the oldest daughter.
One day the widow asked me, “Will you be the one with me when the baby is born?”
And so a trauma nurse, with no experience in labor and delivery, ended up in a delivery room. We placed photos of her husband around the room and the nurses were told all about him and their life together. She told them how I had been with her on the that day. Hours later, I was the first one to hold the youngest daughter of my former patient. As I looked down at her tiny face I saw her daddy’s. Tears streaming down my face I handed her back to the nurse and fled the room. In the hallway I slid down the wall to the floor sobbing. One of the other nurses sat beside me, holding and rocking me as I cried. Through my tears I explained, “I was with her when he died. I disconnected the ventilator, shut off the medications, took out the IVs, and it was me who had to tell her he was dead. And now I got to hold his baby daughter.”
I had endured countless withdrawals of care and watched life end, but now I watched life begin. What a wonderful way to end my career as a civilian nurse in a military hospital. God has given me a gift; a gift that has been instrumental in healing my heart.
My gift is two years old this month. She and her mom and sister no longer live close by, and she probably wouldn’t know who I am. But I know, and every time her mom sends me a photo of her, I see her daddy’s face and in that I see my successes.
My life is very different these days. Aside from friends, my military contact is limited; I miss it tremendously, miss the environment, the relationships with coworkers and battle buddies. My sleep is only infrequently plagued by death. Now my days are spent as a nurse case manager and an occasional ER RN. My church has started a medical missions ministry and medical missions are in my future. My first one will be this month, to El Salvador, and another to the Dominican Republic later in the year. If you’d like to follow along, two other nurses and I have started a blog called MBC Nurses on a Mission. I will warn you though, unlike my friend and fellow Sandbox contributor Troy Steward, who seems to post twelve times a day on his milblog Bouhammer, I am not an every day (or even an every week) kind of blogger.
One last thing before I sign off. Through The Sandbox I have met wonderful people who I now call my friends. Friends who have kept my true identity a secret for years, coming up with half truths or boldfaced lies when people asked how we met. I came up with the name Clara Hart as a symbol of my profession. “Clara” after Clara Barton who nursed innumerable soldiers in her lifetime, “Hart” as a play on the word ‘heart,' because nursing is about compassion, and you cannot be a truly good nurse without a heart of compassion and a willingness to share it.
My name is Susan and I am so very happy to have met you and shared my journey with you. May God bless you richly.