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Extending a Hand to Hold

Jan 16, 2018

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It was a pretty emotional moment for the both of us. We were in shock. It was tears of joy and disbelief, really. It was there in that moment I realized I was supposed to be a nurse.

Jennifer Aycock


Attendees at the AACN President's Luncheon at last year's National Teaching Institute & Critical Care Exposition (NTI) in Houston were moved and inspired by the tale of a nurse, Jennifer Aycock, and her patient, Marcus Engel, who was left blind when he was in college after sustaining horrific injuries at the hands of a drunk driver that required more than 300 hours of reconstructive facial surgery and years of hospitalization, rehab and recovery. Jennifer, interim director of emergency services and clinical operations at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis, tells us the extraordinary story of how she cared for Marcus and-20 years later-reunited with him.


How did you decide to become a nurse?

I was a paramedic first, and I started working in the emergency department at Barnes Hospital At the time, they did not recognize paramedics, so I was a patient care tech. Working in the E.D. at Barnes is when I decided to become a nurse.


And how did you then become involved in critical care?

Honestly, the best E.D. nurses that I looked up to all came from a critical care background. I wanted to be just like them when I grew up, so I decided to go to the surgical burn trauma ICU as a brand-new nurse. Originally, I intended to go back to the E.D., but I loved the SICU so much I stayed. I eventually became assistant nurse manager, then the clinical nurse manager of the SICU.


You were recently named a finalist for March of Dimes Nurse of the Year in Missouri. How did that come about?

I was nominated by a colleague and then became a finalist! It was a shock, really, and an honor. I did not win, but it was an honor even sharing the stage with such remarkable people. I really am humbled. 


The story of your experience with Marcus is incredible. Please share as much as you feel comfortable with.

As you know, I was a PCT in the E.D. We were called by EMS about a patient who was ejected from his vehicle. When he rolled through the door, it was rather shocking. You could tell his face was smashed-his eyes were lying on his cheeks. This is hard to explain, but sometimes as a nurse or any healthcare provider you have an instant connection with someone. I felt that way with Marcus the minute he rolled through my E.D. doors. He was in bad shape. We all did our thing in the E.D. like the amazing team we are — IV, labs, X-rays, etc. Marcus was given a crichothyrotomy in the field, so he was unable to talk. I decided to hold his hand. Part of this was to be there for him; part of this was to make sure he could hear me. I would ask him to squeeze my hand when asking questions. Then he would arouse and squeeze my hand. I would just repeat who I was, where he was and I'm here. I obviously did not know the impact of that then. 

We traveled to C.T., and the nurse told me to get out of the room. But I was not leaving him. Something kept me there. I told them!was not leaving. I guess they saw in my eyes I was serious and let me stay. I did not let go of his hand for hours. I finally did when I delivered him upstairs to the ICU. I remember saying to him they were going to take good care of you, and I let go. This was the ICU I eventually worked in.


Why wouldn’t you let go?

There was something inside me telling me not to let go. He needed me in that moment. I couldn't give him pain meds, I couldn't do all the nursing tasks, but I could just be there for him. I really just wanted him to know that he was not alone, that there was someone there with him letting him know he was not alone. I didn’t want him to be alone.


How did you come back in contact with each other?

The patient experience team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital had a speaker come in to talk to the staff for an entire week. The speaker was originally someone else. One day I got a call from my H.R. business partner, and he asked me if I heard our speaker. I originally thought it was the speaker who was supposed to be there, so I said, yes, I had heard him in previous engagements. He then proceeded to tell me that it was someone different and then started to explain his story. I was listening to Josh tell me this story, and I immediately got goosebumps because this was sounding way too familiar. I then asked Josh what the speaker's name was, and he told me "Marcus Engel." I about fell out of my chair and said, "Josh, I took care of him in the E.D." He said, "Jenny, he talks about you in his book." Then the tears just started rolling down my cheeks. I went home and downloaded the book; it was such an emotional experience — I kept having to wipe my eyes trying to read it. It was one of the most impactful nights of my life.

The next day Marcus finished one of his talks. Carol, a member of the patient experience team, went up to him and said, "Marcus ... we have a surprise for you." She said, "We found your Jennifer."

I was standing right next to him, and he said, "Where is she?" I said, "I’m here." It was a pretty emotional moment for the both of us. We were in shock. It was tears of joy and disbelief, really. It was there in that moment I realized I was supposed to be a nurse.


And you were reunited again at NTI four years later. What was going through your mind when you walked out on the stage?

Well, Marcus and I have been friends and have done speaking engagements periodically. But just sitting there listening to him tell his story will never get old. What he has done to give back to healthcare providers everywhere is tenfold what I did. I see remarkable nurses, doctors, patient care techs and others do every day what I did.

Nursing is not easy, and there have been many times where I thought I needed to throw in the towel. Marcus calls me his angel and that I have saved his life. But what I wanted him to know on that stage that day is really he has saved mine. That I see him and all the good that he does, and I want to continue to be that person I was on Oct. 9, 199 3. He makes me realize with one small gesture you can change a person's life for better or worse.


And your story comes full circle in other ways, too. There's Garrett, Marcus's retired service dog, whom you recently adopted.

It almost seems like some sort of universal karma dosing the loop on this experience. I LOVE THIS DOG! He is sleeping next to me now. I got Garrett a year ago December. He is such a special part of our life. So cute and fun. And when he really loves you and wants your attention, he gives me his paw ... much like I gave Marcus my hand that day.


Anything else you'd like to add?

Marcus is BRILLIANT!If anyone can come reenergize your staff, it is him. I consider myself to be incredibly blessed to have him in my life.