Gratitude: lessons from patients

I was near the tail end of one of those shifts that, let’s face it, just pissed me off. My patients had been entitled, demanding, rude, and not really in need of emergency care to begin with. In came this patient whose report caused me, in retrospect, to feel entitled, demanding, and rude. I felt entitled to patients who didn’t abuse the system, resented (my perception of) his medication noncompliance, and barely avoided being overtly abrupt with him. I was tired and not in the mood for my preconceived notion of what this patient contact would entail.

But by the end of my shift I told him, “I’m glad I got to take care of you this morning. I really needed to meet you today.” He squeezed my hand with his weak one and said, “I’m going to take a nap.” Because I have that kind of energizing effect on my patients.

This man was young. I can’t say how young exactly, but younger than I am, and I’m in my late 30’s. He revealed in his H&P that he’d had a massive heart attack several years ago followed by severe end-organ damage after lying on the floor undiscovered for days while his heart muscle died. Miraculously, he lay before me speaking clearly and calmly, with residual deficits but not horrific ones.

I asked him my standard questions about drug and alcohol use, and he said, “I can’t have any painkillers. I love them, but you can’t give them to me. Because I love them so much.” He went on to reveal that he’d been heavily in to drugs and gang activity in a nearby metropolitan area and that after his long hospitalization and rehab he also became addicted to painkillers.

And then he quit. All of it. He quit smoking and went to a pain-management clinic. “If you take away my pain,” he bargained, “I’ll give up the narcotics.” And they did. And he did. “That doctor,” he laughed, “said I was the first patient he’d ever met who gave up every drug he was doing when he said he would!” I believed him.

He exuded bonhomie. Pink-cheeked, grinning, and shyly polite, he took the most optimistic possible view of everything. This is so at odds with most patients with this kind of tragic interruption to their youth, who are bitter and have a score to settle with all medical personnel, that I pulled up a chair. I, with full function of all my body parts and nothing to complain about at all, am never that happy. Clearly I had something to learn.

He told me with a smile that he thanked God for “stopping me when I couldn’t stop myself.” He said if he hadn’t had that heart attack he’d “still be an asshole,” and if not that, dead from drugs or a gunshot. Now, he said, “I’m not an asshole, I’m a much better person, and people like me. People come see me because they think I’m a good guy, not because ‘oh it’s so sad this guy’s crippled.’ That never would have happened before.”

As I left, somewhat reluctantly, for the night, he mused, “You know, right before this happened, I prayed to God to help me stop all them things I was doing. I should’ve been more specific. Ha ha ha ha ha.”

As a nurse, I learn a vast amount about disease processes, medications, and procedures, as well as a lot that I don’t want to learn about the bad side of human nature. But every now and then, when I can get over myself and actually communicate human-to-human with one of my patients, I learn how to be a better person.