Shazia Memon works at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York and, like most critical care nurses, approaches her work with unbridled passion for the children for whom she provides care. She is also a prolific who penned an essay last November for and about nurses that encapsulated within this community of exceptional nurses all that is good in what you do. You can read her essay here.
Please tell me your position and where you work.
I am a nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York Presbyterian. I know, the name is a mouthful. For short, we call ourselves CHONY.
How did you get started in nursing or decide to become a nurse?
I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a nurse but I always knew I wanted to work with sick children. When I was applying to college, I literally went through the the dropdown box of majors trying to pick one that would be the best fit, and I chose nursing. I know that's kind of anti-climactic but it's exactly what happened. I wasn’t sure if I would even stick to that major, let alone end up loving it.
How is it that you came to be involved in critical care?
It's funny because this also kind of happened by chance. When I graduated from nursing school and started applying for jobs, I was looking for anything in pediatrics. This was one of the few positions that was hiring new graduate nurses at the time so I jumped on it. When I first started, I remember walking around the unit thinking I’d made a huge mistake. I pictured myself interacting with kids, and most of the kids were intubated and sedated or just extremely sick and weak. I remember thinking I would just finish the six-month training and then ask to be moved to a less intense unit in the hospital. But somehow, during that time, the job and place grew on me. It was an extremely rough unit to start as a new graduate, but I'm glad I stuck it out. Critical care is where all of medicine comes together, and nurses are at the front line of it. I really cherish that role.
You are a prolific writer. Can you talk about your writing background, how you got started?
I've loved to write since elementary school. Writing was my passion, and I was afraid if I took it on as a career it would feel more like a job and make me love it less. When I started working, I remember so many people asking me what it was like to work with sick children and assumed it was just depressing. I always had a hard time coming up with an answer because it’s a role of so many mixed emotions, not just sadness. And I don’t even consider that to be the strongest emotion. So I decided to write about what it was to treat children. I pitched the essay to so many places, often never hearing back or getting rejected. It took a while, but the Atlantic finally got back to me and published it, and that was the start.
What in particular that fuels your passion for nursing and compassion towards others?
The patients and families themselves – I am humbled every day on the job by their struggles and the way they handle them. My faith in God helps me help them, and they in turn also increase my faith in God.
Regarding the article you wrote for the Washington Post that was published on Nov. 23, can you talk about how that came about. When did you actually write it?
Throughout most of the year, I have writer's block. I have all these ideas, and whenever I am at work, I jot down memorable moments [on my phone} in case I want to write about them later. I think this essay sort of speaks for itself in terms of the experiences and events that inspired it. The idea behind it was just that I often feel like my patients and their families help me so much more than I help them. I wanted to share and explain that gratitude I felt for them, and I know many nurses share that sentiment.
Did you get responses from many people?
I was really humbled by all of the feedback I got. Of course my family and friends are always supportive, but when strangers reach out to you about it, it makes it feel even more meaningful. A lot of people reached out to me, and some shared very personal stories with me and it meant a lot. It inspired me to keep writing. And every day on my job, I continue to meet more and more extraordinary patients and families and I continue to feel grateful that they let me into their lives, even if momentarily. I wish I could write about them all.
Do you have any fascinating/poignant/impactful cases that you’ve experienced as a nurse that stand out for you?
I can tell you one story that is unique from the rest in that it has nothing to do with poignancy and emotion and it was all just logisitics, but still super memorable. It was one of the most complicated things I've ever had to do in my career. We had to transfer one of our teenaged patients that we took care of for months to the adult’s hospital across the street. He was on ECMO, and on top of that, he was on respiratory support and tons of IV drips and medications to keep his vital signs stable.
Sounds complicated. What did that entail?
We planned the transfer for days, going as far as walking the path multiple times beforehand to make sure we wouldn't run into any hurdles or get stuck in any narrow doorways or halls. We literally took measuring tape with us to make sure we would be able to fit through everything. We calculated what the fastest route possible would be, which elevators were optimal, and made sure all the battery backups on all of his supportive equipment were fully charged. On the day of, I had to do everything to consolidate all of these things, and ensure everything would run smoothly. We finally left after hours of setting up, and it took a slowly moving swarm of about 18 people to make it there. And because he was my patient, and I knew every detail of what was going on to/with him, I ended up sort of taking charge. It was really awkward for me because I hate barking orders at people. But for the sake of safety and efficiency, I just kept barking orders and just apologized profusely afterwards. As crazy as the swarm looked, it went as quietly and smoothly as possible, and I will never forget it. The most difficult part was saying goodbye to him at the end.
You’ve gone back to school.
I'm studying part-time at the University of Pennsylvania -- getting a Family Nurse Practitioner degree. I honestly don't know yet what I'm going to do with that degree! I still love being a PICU bedside nurse.
What makes the nursing profession or being a nurse so special?
I think it’s because the role is all encompassing. When you spend consecutive 12-hour shifts with a patient and his or her family, you become more than a nurse. You listen to their struggles and give them an ear to let out their frustrations. Sometimes, even though it sucks, you also end up being their punching bag. You force them out of bed and take them on their first walk in months, and let them hold on to you when they feel wobbly. You watch their vital signs and lab values and make sure things are stable and optimal at that moment in time. You clean them when they cannot clean themselves. You quickly intervene when things go wrong, especially if the doctors are occupied with an even sicker patient. You administer medications, you minimize pain, you communicate between all the different consults following the patient. You handle the ventilators and run the dialysis.
And all the while doing this, you really get to know the families. I remember last year, we lost a patient after taking care of her for months. The family came here from overseas to have her treated here. When they were leaving to go back to their country, the father said words I will never forget. He said “We will miss our family here in the PICU.” And it’s true – when you go through the best of times and the worst of times together, you become family. It’s how I feel about my relationship with my coworkers as well.