“Today is my 16th birthday and I thought you’d want to know that I’m spending it with you instead of my friends.”
May 28, 1976, my 16th birthday, a day which would change the entire trajectory of my life.
My mother was in a coma in the intensive care unit at Baptist Hospital (now Ochsner Baptist). She had been in a coma for weeks and had been sick for a long time — long enough that the fear and anxiety of her death had given way to a waiting game. There was no cure, she was breathing on her own and honestly my brother, sister and I were waiting for her to die.
My siblings and I wanted someone to be with my mother every day, just in case she could hear us or know we were there. My brother and sister were both older and working, so I had to go to the ICU that day.
As a 16-year-old girl, out of school for the summer, I remember resenting the shit out of that.
Like it's my 16th birthday! All my friends were at the pool. I wanted to be there too. I told them, “I have to go to the ICU and see my mom.”
So, I did.
When I arrived and went to my mother’s room, nothing had changed. She laid there lifeless in a coma and I almost angrily whispered in her ear, “Today is my 16th birthday and I thought you’d want to know that I’m spending it with you instead of my friends.” I know how awful that sounds.
I sat down and began reading the book I’d brought with me to pass the time. A few minutes later, a couple of nurses came into the room with a cake, balloons, and party hats.
“Happy Birthday,” they said.
It was such a bizarre scene.
I don't know if my brother or sister told them about it, but it was a group of relatively young nurses who were super excited to help me celebrate my 16th birthday. I was so overwhelmed and remember being very caught up in the celebration. At some point, all the nurses in the unit came around to wish me a happy birthday.
Why is this important? Why is this the day that changed the entire trajectory of my life?
Growing up, I wanted to go to law school. Politics were really interesting in the ‘70s — as they are now — and I had a big southern family that loved to sit around and debate politics, the legal system and so on. A career in law seemed perfect.
But, that day in the hospital on my birthday changed everything.
I knew I had to become a nurse. In those moments on my 16th birthday, those nurses weren’t taking care of my comatose mother. They were taking care of me. Their compassion overwhelmed me and it's the kind of compassion I see in my nursing colleagues every single day since I became a nurse.
Day in and day out we witness nurses taking care of patients using new technology, equipment, and drugs. They are incredibly technically skilled. At the same time, they are attending to the myriad of emotions which come with being hospitalized. They are attending to not only the patient, but to the patient’s spouses, siblings, and children. Nurses, perhaps more so than any other profession, are constantly thinking about how to support the whole family during a serious illness or health crisis.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d witness nurses attend to the emotional needs of their patients and families. Particularly during this unprecedented situation, I’m overwhelmed by the innovative and creative ways nurses keep patients and families connected — nurses attend to the fears of their patients and celebrate their recoveries, last rights are provided by virtual chaplains, nurses help adult children from out of state say goodbye to their dying parents virtually, nurses soothe an intubated patient.
These people will not forget these moments. They will remember the incredible kindnesses shown by their nurse.
So many times during this pandemic my mind went back to that ICU room at Baptist and the way my mother’s nurses changed my life on my 16th birthday. They could never know how they changed my life.
My mother died that summer, but my life was enriched by the everyday compassion shown by a few nurses during a dark time. It’s that experience which influenced my own practice as a nurse, and the person I've become as a nursing leader. So much of the wonderful things that have happened in my life began through a small act of kindness by a few nurses on my 16th birthday. I’ll never forget it.
The Nurses Gave Me Cake