Last night I had the privilege of attending the retirement party of a dear friend and mentor. He spent 41 years in the nursing profession and worked for 36 of those years in the very same CTICU that I once called my home. A few nights ago, I spoke with him on the phone in anticipation of what would, without question, be a bittersweet and emotional sendoff.
“I’ve been thinking about what I plan to say,” he told me, “And it comes down to family. Everything in life comes down to family.”
I sat for few moments and listened to the tone in his voice soften. A man who had worked in the same department – come hell or high water – for my entire lifetime, said something that truly struck me:
“In my entire career, I can honestly say that I never once dreaded coming to work. And it’s not because work was easy. It’s not that it wasn’t frustrating. It was because I knew that no matter how hard things were – no matter how bad it got – I could always count on my family.”
I felt tears well up in my eyes, overcome by the duality of poignancy and pain. How lucky this man was – this mentor to all; this force of nature; this fierce advocate and heroic healer; this progenitor of not only nurses but physicians and technicians and everyone in between – to have felt so supported by his team that he could sustain a decades long career at the bedside. And yet to witness through his words and sentiments, through the tales of his years in critical care, through his war stories in the trenches with bedside warriors by his side…a reality that could never possibly be my own…I felt heartbroken.
Cheated. Abandoned by a system that once instilled a sense of pride in its collective, but now only causes pain. I felt angry for him, unable to fathom how his career in nursing must have started compared to the nightmare picture of the profession at the end. I thought about how many times he must have fought tooth and nail against the algorithmic, cookie cutter version of nursing that valued metrics and checked boxes over direct patient care. I thought about how many cracks formed in the foundation of healthcare over his four decades of practice, and how a brick-and-mortar system converted to a house of cards. I thought about the great ones. The ones who inspired me. The ones who taught me to think critically and advocate endlessly and prioritize the patient over everything…and how they’ve all gone by the wayside. They have retired. They have resigned. They have done their due diligence to endure an ever-evolving system where dollars trump everything…and their legacies depend on those of us who remain.
And yet I do not know a single person that works in bedside nursing and intends to stay. I hardly know anybody who has lasted four years in the same department, let alone forty. I don’t know anybody that hasn’t become burnt out; broken; or beaten down by the modern-day medicine money making regime. Can I blame them? Never. I left the bedside nearly six years ago, and never looked back. But does it break my heart? Absolutely. As someone who believes in paying it forward; in encouraging the future; in giving back to others…it kills me to know that if I had to do all over again, I would never become a nurse.
But I can’t do it all over again. And despite the winding road that the last thirteen years in healthcare have been, I know one thing for sure: some people enter your life to remind you of the good. Some people are intended to grant you perspective. Some people aren’t just your shift mates or work friends: they are your family.
They raise you with little direction but hope to show you their own mistakes so that you can be better. They are imperfect and flawed but, God willing, work to rectify their mistakes. They lead you. They nurture you. They cheer you on. And when you finally fly the coop, they take a big breath and say:
“I’m so damn proud of every single one of you. Everyone who has moved on; gotten an advanced education; found a way to balance life. I only wish I had the courage to live my life the way you guys do. You are intelligent, independent, and fearless…and it’s a joy for me to see.”
Sometimes, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. If you’re lucky, you are given the chance to learn from the mentors, the healers, the larger-than-life advocates…even when you’re off the clock. May we who now know better, do better. May we who move forward, never forget where we came from. May we welcome the gift of growing older and wiser, surrounded by the blessings of family in every form. And may we have the privilege of welcoming every season of life with grace, humor, and gratitude.
** Thank you for every lesson, my dear friend. That fact that your impact is even larger than your stature, speaks absolute volumes. Happy well-deserved, hard-earned retirement.