The Difference Between Nursing and Journalism

Nurse's Note by jparadisi

Nurse’s Note by jparadisi

On any given shift, nurses witness the drama of life and death. This aspect of our work is unlikely to change. We witness patients taking in the bad news of their diagnosis, holding basins up to their faces while they vomit, and transfusing blood products before they exsanguinate. Although oncology is not an actual war, nurses and patients alike use military terms to describe it, such as battling cancer, or attacking tumor cells. We see ourselves as comrades in the fight against this devastating enemy.

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was a nurse during the Civil War. In her memoir, Hospital Sketches, she describes witnessing the death of a young soldier in detail so vividly the scene rings true for any nurse who has attended the bedside of the dying.

Whether we record our experiences in words to share with others, or keep them to ourselves, as nurses we bear witness to the suffering of our patients. Sometimes this secondary trauma leads to compassion fatigue, if not real disease or injury.

Watching people suffer is difficult, but at least I am not watching helplessly. I am grateful to be an oncology nurse now, when advancements in cancer treatment and its side effects occur regularly. Armed with these tools, oncology nurses bring knowledge and skill to the care and comfort of their patients. For me the ability to give aid makes witnessing the suffering bearable. I think being a news journalist or photographer sent to bear witness of the stories of conflicts in the world would be more difficult. Or filming a devastating natural disaster while people perish. Journalism requires a story, and pictures. Granted, at their best, these stories and pictures alert the world to action, serving a valuable purpose. Still, emotional trauma occurs among journalists, as in nurses.

Even Alcott experienced trauma from her military service when she contracted typhoid fever. She suffered lifelong chronic pain, a side effect of the mercury-based medication used to treat her. This is not unlike secondary cancers suffered by oncology patients from the chemotherapy administered to save them from their primary cancer.

Have you ever felt helpless in a patient care setting? Do your nursing skills offset the emotional trauma you experience or have little impact? What tools do you use to prevent compassion fatigue for yourself?

Returning To Hoyt Street, Everything Has changed

photo: jparadisi

photo: jparadisi

I’m standing in line at the Post Office on Hoyt Street, along with at least fifty other people waiting to mail Christmas packages. It’s been two years since I wrote the post, Miracle On Hoyt Street, describing a similar experience.

Things have changed since then. Not gradually over two years, but abruptly. On Tuesday, December 11, 2012, we Oregonians experienced our first, and hopefully last, mass shooting at the Clackamas Town Center. One of the two dead, Cindy Yuille was a hospice nurse. I did not know her.

On Friday, December 14, 2012, twenty elementary school children and six faculty members were gunned down mercilessly in Newtown, Connecticut by a twenty-year old attacker we still don’t know very much about.

What is the differential diagnosis dividing the mentally ill from the criminally insane?

Today, standing in line while waiting my turn to mail packages, Christmas songs play on the same scratchy speakers as two years ago, but this time I feel unexpectedly anxious. I realize I am uncomfortable being in a crowded public place. I look around for my old nemesis, the postal clerk who was the Newman to my Seinfeld. She is not here. Perhaps she has retired, that lucky bitch (insert smiley-face emoticon here). Then suddenly, in my imagination, the remaining clerks behind the counter resemble ducks in a shooting gallery.  It occurs to me that they risk their lives daily, standing behind that counter in a large, freely accessed lobby without security. That thought causes me to look around and find available exits, which are scant. Would my best chance of survival be to race towards one, or hit the ground and pray I’m missed? I shake my head to clear it, and glance at the booklets of stamps available for purchase. One features a picture of the cartoon character Nemo with his father. I chomp down hard on the gum in my mouth to prevent the tears from coming back as I think of fathers swimming the vast seas, searching for children who no longer exist.

When I finally reach the counter, I thank the clerk for her good work, and wish her a Merry Christmas.

Home again, I make a special dinner to share with David when he returns from work. I say a silent prayer of gratitude when he walks safely through the door.

Over a glass a wine, I tell him about my anxiety at the Post Office. He understands, says everyone is feeling it too. He puts his arm around me, and pulls me close, while we watch It’s a Wonderful Life in the glow of Christmas tree lights.