The best that nurses can be: Five uplifting and inspiring stories about exceptional nurses

The week of May 6 -12 has been “National Nurses Week” for over twenty years now, and this year too it will be a unique occasion to celebrate the role nurses play in delivering the highest level of quality care to their patients. To kick off the week, we’d like to highlight just a handful of stories about the inspiring work of nurses whose inventiveness, watchfulness or passion for their work are making all the difference for their patients.

1. Date night at the hospital

The Bone Marrow Transplant unit at Stony Brook University Hospital may not generally be the most romantic place in town. But thanks to a group of generous, enterprising oncology nurses, it’s where patients battling leukemia and lymphoma have been getting a unique respite from their worries, when their hospital rooms are transformed into makeshift private restaurants and they are left to enjoy their favorite dishes with their spouse.

It was all the idea of Maggie Knight, who only started work as Registered Nurse at Stony Brook less than two years ago. One day, after leaving the room of one of her patients who had been in the hospital for several months, she thought, ‘Man, we have to make him feel more at home.’” So together with Chaplain Elizabeth Meehan and the man’s spouse, she arranged a surprise date night, with food, music and decorations to match.

More nurses soon got involved, as well as the unit’s social worker Nicole Wood, and just over a month ago they prepared a similar romantic dinner for the tenth time. They donate their own time and money to make it possible. “Maggie and I brought dinner plates, silverware, champagne flutes and wooden roses,” Meehan explains on the Stony Brook site. “We decorate one of the hospital carts, set out the meal along with dessert and wheel it into the patient’s room. .. And then we put a “do not disturb” sign on the door when we leave so that the couple can enjoy their time together.”

Photos from some of the dinners feature candles, roses, and tablecloths decorated with paper hearts. “His hospital room was transformed into a cozy romantic setting with a table for two,” the wife of a lymphoma patient recounted. Her husband, 56-year-old Richard Pearse, was in the hospital for aggressive chemotherapy treatment and a stem cell bone marrow transplant. “That night, with my wife in the room, helped make us feel whole, ready to go back to my life,” he said later. “It was an important part of my healing. I will never forget that date or the people who made it happen for us.”

The tenth date night was for Luis Almedina, whom Knight called a “bit of a frequent flyer” for repeated chemotherapy treatments, and his wife. They were served lobster, shrimp scampi, and chicken alfredo, the Stony Brook Independent reported – and cheesecake and a special virgin pina colada for dessert. The food is no longer ordered from restaurants, but prepared by the dietary department so the couple can get exactly what it wants and needs.

It’s not the first time Maggie Knight has gone the extra mile: as a student nurse, she was a national recipient of the Inspired Comfort Award, and raised $4,500 for cancer patients by bicycling from Baltimore to San Diego. All the nurses who take part are having to plan the surprise dinners very carefully, the Stony Brook Independent article explains: when a patient’s white blood cell count is low “the patient is more prone to infection and can’t have certain foods”, while chemotherapy causes nausea and may decrease appetite. So it’s all about identifying the rare point during a patient’s hospitalization when they “can eat the food they want- and feel like eating it”. It doesn’t stop them: movie nights and a “Battle of the Bands” are next.

2. The singing nurse

What do you get when you combine a degree in music and a training as Registered Nurse? A singing nurse. That’s the nickname that has stuck for Jared Axen, a nurse at at the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia, California. Once he switched to nursing, his passion for music meant that he’d often be singing to himself as he walked down the halls of the hospital, and soon he discovered that patients would come out of their rooms just to hear him. So he decided he would use his musical gifts as an additional way to care for his patients, he explained in 2012 to CBS Los Angeles. “We’re always kind of taught as registered nurses to try to find other ways to comfort and console our patients while we’re waiting for the pain medication to kick in, or something just to keep their mind busy, and as I’ve always been singing, I started singing at their bedside.”

His patients are grateful for the care he devotes to them when he sits by them, holds their hand and sings their favorite songs. It had been at least thirty years since someone last sang to her, said 85-year-old heart patient Audrey Smith that year, and in newly lifted spirits she even sang back to him, and quite well too. “You know, you’re in the hospital and you have a heavy heart, you’re worried and everything, but you come along and it just .. it makes me feel so good,” another patient told Jared in this video from the year after, when he was named “Nurse of the Year” by CBS’s The Doctors. “When I hear Jared sing, I feel so light-hearted and my heart is lifted,” she explained. “He puts a smile on my face.” Cancer patient Lucinda Tilch put it this way: “I think it relaxes me, and it just makes me … forget about it while I’m listening”. It meant so much to one patient who would always ask for him to come sing for her, the family asked Axen to sing at the funeral when she passed away.

It means just as much to him, he explained. “I had been singing on stage for a while, and you get see an audience, but you never get to see how your music affects somebody… In the medical field, you’re working with somebody who is going through a very stressful time in their life… And they’re used to, in the hospital setting, being treated as patients rather than as people. Music and singing is a common language. It lets you be able to bond with somebody on a very different level.”

Happiness helps health, and Axen told the LA Times that patients would request less pain medication and fewer mood stabilizers, because they were in higher spirits. “They may not necessarily be happy about the situation, but it seems a little bit easier to handle”. 89-year-old Norma Laskoske, who resided in the hospital because of pneumonia and lung cancer, seemed to agree, even as his rendition of “Time After Time” moved her to tears. “If he would come in 24 hours a day I think I’d be well and I’d be out of here,” she said. “He has a beautiful, soothing voice and the nice thing about it is when he looks at you, you know he’s singing to you. It just pierces my heart.”

3. Grateful for life

In 1973, a nursing aide in Birmingham, Alabama, treated a young boy with care and kindness, and he never forgot.

Gary Bentley and nurse, the old photo

Gary Bentley as ten-year old boy, and Kathy Henricks as nurse’s aide, back in 1973

Gary Bentley was ten years old, and he had just had open-heart surgery to repair a hole in his left ventricle. Doctors only discovered that the hole was still there, even though it was supposed to have sealed as he grew up, when Gary and his six brothers and sisters were taken from their abusive, alcoholic father and placed into foster homes. It was a miracle he had survived and the operation left a giant scar all down his chest, but there was one thing that comforted the boy: the kindness and compassion of a nurse’s aide called Kathy. “For some reason, she was really sweet to me, and I looked forward to her coming in every day,” Gary told AL.com 42 years later. She would bring small gifts and treats, he recounted, and “when they moved me off her floor, man, I cried.” The nurse was the first person to ever be kind to him, his wife says.

“I guess she just saw that I needed a friend,” he said, but he kept the memory at heart even as he passed through three foster homes. All he knew, however, was her first name, and all he had was a photo of the two of them together. Gary is now a successful turtle farmer. “I’ve always wondered what happened to her, and wondered why she was so nice to me,” he explained. “I would just like to tell her thank you. Your act of kindness many years ago – it was appreciated. I haven’t forgot it, and I never will forget.”

Thanks to social media, he could finally tell her in person this year. Gary and his wife posted the old photo on Facebook, and it didn’t take long to find her. “I know the nurse in the picture and she is my mom!” someone soon e-mailed. Her full name turned out to be Kathy Henricks, and she’s still a nurse, over four decades later, still working in cardiology. In fact, three of her children work in health care too. “I can remember her saying, ‘a patient is already probably having one of their worst days, .. so its important to treat beyond medicine – with kindness’,” one of them recounted.

Kathy still remembered Gary too. At the time she was six months away from graduation, working part time to put herself through school. She’d had “absolutely” no idea how much of an impact she was making: “I didn’t know about Gary’s situation, I just saw a little boy going through a surgery that would be tough for anyone”. The fact that anybody “would go to the depths that he did to try to locate me, to thank me, it was just incredible”. But he did, and one Sunday afternoon they met again. Gary and his wife Gwen brought a bouquet of flowers – and that old photo of him and the nurse, framed.

4. Fighting the storm

Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina may be burnt into our memories more recently, but when Hurricane Hugo made landfall in South Carolina in 1989, it was the costliest tropical cyclone to ever have hit the United States at the time. Tens of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, 26 people died, and the total cost in the United States and Puerto Rico was $7 billion. But the hospitals had to keep working the best they could, and Margot Withrow was a Registered Nurse in Charleston.

Years later Donna Maheady included her story in her book The Exceptional Nurse: Tales from the trenches of truly resilient nurses working with disabilities, and excerpted it on her blog. Withrow had only just been recruited to the Charleston hospital that very week, but when the storm started making the news, she felt she couldn’t “desert the ship.” Things soon became very difficult: “I worked 12 hours, then took a cold shower in an operating room and went to catch some sleep in a converted room on a hospital ward. [..] Transformers popped like fireworks and cars were floating in the water. In the moment before the power went out, the TV announced that Hugo was here. The windows blew out, and I moved to the hallway fighting back panic.”

Withrow ended up sleeping just twenty minutes in 40 hours as she was left in charge of the ICU, with the ventilators cutting on and off, the elevator out of order, and the septic system backed up. Her bravery was inspiring, but the end of the story was not uplifting. She was diagnosed with PTSD afterward, and never received the bonus that had been promised. Afraid of losing her job because of the stigma attached with mental health issues, especially back then, she never told anyone, and she had to pick up extra shifts to cover the costs of therapy, which was not covered by her insurance. Her story underlines how important it is that both the heroism and perils of nursing work are recognized.

5. The nurse who saved her rescuer

When Polly Collins, a 43-year-old registered nurse, was on her way to her job at Hillingdon Hospital in London last January, she was accosted by a fellow passenger. Stephen Breed, a 65-year-old retired warehouse manager, stepped in and told him off. But although he managed to make the man back off and leave the nurse in peace, it was not until after “he got in my face … and my heart was racing a bit”. When Breed got off the train, he collapsed with a heart attack. Luckily, somebody else had gotten off at the same stop: Polly Collins, the very nurse he’d protected. She immediately went to work, grabbing the station’s defibrillator and performing CPR on Breed for 10-15 minutes until the ambulance arrived. The paramedics took the grandfather of four to nearby Harefield Hospital, where heart specialists put a stent in his heart. Now, his partner Masdalina Panigada observed, “it looks like he’s going to be absolutely OK and live for another 30 years”.

A week after that fateful night, the nurse and the rescuer she ended up rescuing reunited. “I had to meet her, I just had to,” Breed said. “When someone saves your life you can’t really not. I just thanked her. What can you say? There’s no words that can thank her for that.” They got on “like a house on fire,” the nurse added, and Breed said she was “absolutely marvellous”. “We got on very well and had a good laugh. She’s a wonderful nurse and a very down to earth, nice young girl.” Collins, however, insisted that “I was just carrying out the duty of care, being a registered nurse, and anybody would do the same.”

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