What drives you? What makes you tick? What inspires you? Engages you? Is worth fighting for? Many days that I leave work, I often ponder these questions: what makes you do what you do, and why do you keep fighting for it? You see, life could have been much easier if I stayed in my old career. I could have achieved lots of success. I might have made lots of money. Maybe my work emergencies would have been concert tickets and television contracts and where to get cocktails after work. But that world didn’t drive me. It didn’t inspire me. It didn’t engage me or incite me or invite me to sit down and stay a while. And so when I leave work after those very long days – you all know them – the fourteen hour, forgot to eat, didn’t pee, never left your patient’s room kind of days – I often find that what drives me is sitting quietly in the corner of the room, hesitant to touch anyone or anything. What inspires me is the terrified family member who is putting on a brave face, unable to break down and cry for the off chance that maybe their critically ill loved one can sense the tears streaming down their face. What pushes me is the sheer reality that, on any given day, I could help save another human being from the end that seems so imminent, and offer them but one more chance to see the sunrise again. What encourages me is that, when all hope is lost and all actions are futile, a dignified death can still be an attainable one.
There are so many days when I live my life, floating through the day; existing; going through the motions; completely unaware of just how incredible the gift of human interaction can be, and how much we have to offer one another. I feel guilty when I catch myself in those moments – those times when I breathe but forget to smell the roses; when my heart beats but my passion is not in the moment; when my brain is just a brain and not an incredible and powerful mind – because it proves to me that even witnessing the pendulum between here and the afterlife every day can become routine. And so now I sit – with my coffee and my keyboard, staring out the window at a sun shining bright in the sky, contemplating all of the wonder and possibility that life can offer those who open themselves up to it, and understanding that what I do every day allows me relish in this moment.
We are all so involved in our own hustle and bustle, the rat race, the nose to the grindstone side of life that we are often reticent to express how we actually feel for the sake of what we are literally doing. I don’t want to know what you did at work today – tell me how it felt to be there. I don’t care what you bought at the mall – show me how excited you are to have some “me time.” The fact of the matter is this: we all have motives; intentions; inspirations; dreams and goals and aspirations. But most of us fail to realize them. We get clouded by the demands of responsibility and reality and we forget to ask ourselves one simple question: what…makes…me…tick? Who makes me give a damn? Why does any of this matter? Who do I love? What makes me happy? How can I experience all that life can give me, and who can I share it with?
This chain of reasoning may seem so illogically placed from a conversation about being a nurse in the ICU, but I’ll be damned if every single one of us hasn’t thought the same thing. To work under circumstances that are defined by stressors, even on the most pleasant of days, predisposes you to moving in two different directions: you are either polished by the pressure, or you will crumble under the weight of it all. I have been an ICU nurse for nearly two years, and I have had moments when I’ve been split right down the middle. My heart has broken more times than I can count. I’ve gone home and cried the worst kind of tears – the silent and streaming tears, the sort of cry that allows you to speak not with words but with a glazed look and reddened cheeks; the steaming hot shower that you never want to leave kind of cry that leaves you exhausted and exalted and cleansed all at the same time. There have been moments when I’ve asked myself, deep down inside, if I believed that I had caused the death of another human being in some direct or indirect way. I have struggled with the moral and ethical dilemmas that exist when providing Western medicine to a culturally diverse population, and the potential repercussions that come of it. I have been pissed off – like, really, really, royally and irrationally fuck-this-and-that-and-them pissed off – at physicians and families and sometimes, even patients. I have left my loved ones perplexed and appalled and amazed by what I do, and sometimes, have discussed my day with no more enthusiasm than describing what I’d eaten for lunch.
But those times that polish you – the ones that shine your very soul – those are the moments that remind you why you ever chose Frost’s road less traveled in the first place. I’ve come to understand that ICU nurses have very long memories when it comes to amazing saves or miraculous recoveries, because it makes dealing with struggle and strife much more bearable. I have come to recognize that there is no sense of humor darker and dirtier than that in the nurse’s station of an intensive care unit. I have learned that when shit hits the fan, you will never, ever be alone. I’ve come across families who complain and nurses who bicker and patients who need their call buttons removed, but through it all, I’ve come to find laughter and positivity can shift the entire dynamic of a bad day. I’ve held hands and had conversations with people that I hardly know, simply because they needed someone to speak to. I’ve been involved in emergency pizza parties that feed the bodies and the souls of battle-worn nurses. I’ve witnessed unspeakable love and humbling gratitude offered despite less-than-ideal circumstances. I’ve helped young patients move on through critical emergencies, able to walk out of the hospital alive and well, dazed and amazed by what it took to feel a warm breeze again. I’ve seen elderly couples carry on like high-school sweethearts. I’ve heard gasps; I’ve seen collapses; I’ve choked back tears during moments of loss. But when those bad moments end well, I’ve seen the possibility of eternal love evoked from feathery kiss or a soft, sweet embrace. I’ve attended more funerals than I care to speak of, and every single one of them has happened while I’m on the clock. But this…this is what makes us different. This is what grinds away the grit and allows us to shine brighter. To be a part of someone’s life in some meaningful way – whether they leave the hospital, or leave this world entirely – that is a humbling experience. To enter a room quietly during the final hours or minutes or seconds of another human’s existence, and to do so with respect and decency and courage – that is what drives me. To open yourself, if only by a sliver, to the desperation of perfect strangers who need you more than you could imagine – that is what encourages me. To fight your ass off for another life, and win or lose that tremendous battle, maintain that human side of yourself – that’s what makes me tick. Not every happy ending is a perfect one, and not every final goodbye is a sad one. We are all just many shades of gray – it is the living part of life that gives us color.
I have only been a nurse for three years, but it feels like since I started, I cannot remember what life was like before this. I do my best to remind myself why I chose this path, but when I dig deep enough, I recognize that it was not I, but the universe that led me here. Whether fate or destiny or happenstance and circumstance, I am forever defined by my craft. And despite it all, here I sit – understanding that being pensive and reflective does not mean one cannot be the great and eternal optimist. I have seen some crazy shit; I have had some hard days; I have run on fumes and wondered how I would ever survive through the day. But more importantly, I’ve made amazing friends and lifelong colleagues. I’ve connected in powerful ways with perfectly ordinary people, and have experienced ordinary musings with powerful ones. I’ve learned – a lot. About medicine. About anatomy. About physiology. About how to do and what to do, even sometimes what not to do. About the art of intuition. Mostly, about the human condition. I’ve learned what scares us – fear of death, anxiety of the unknown, the prospect of pain in every form. I’ve learned what comforts us – love and laughter coupled with compassion and the simplest acts of human kindness. Most of all — and I’m still figuring this one out — I think I’ve learned what drives us: not money or power or greed, but simply put, it boils down to just being happy. How you define your happiness may be different from my own, but that doesn’t mean it’s not rooted in the same seed. So at the end of it all, when you think long and hard about what brings you basic joy and simple pleasure: let that guide you. Let that encourage you. Let that inspire and incite and ignite you. That moment between reason and responsibility – that fleeting blip in time when you’re distracted from reality and feel wrapped in the cloth of serenity – that’s what makes you tick. Your options are to live, or to exist. Take it from me – the richest life is torn and shorn, ragged and worn, ripping at the seams from all of that living it’s had. You can’t take it with you, so you might as well wear it out.
The original story can be read on Code Blonde