Today I ran into a Mexican restaurant to grab a quick lunch while I waited for my car to finish its smog check (it passed! Yay, car!), and as I ate my meal I noticed a table of nurses in hospital scrubs.  As they chatted among themselves I thought about the many nurses Heather and I have interacted with over the last five years, and I found myself filled with such appreciation for what these amazing women and men do for us.

It was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that I first saw how amazing nurses can be. I wanted so much to love and care for Maddie when she was born, but because of her condition I couldn’t. Instead, I had to trust the nurses at the NICU to take care of her for me, and that was incredibly hard – especially at night when Heather and I went home to catch a few hours sleep.

Sleeping was, of course, almost impossible. My sick baby was not with me, and the phone loomed ominously on the nightstand. If it rang before dawn it would do so for only one reason – to tell us Maddie had passed away. I can’t tell you how scared I was of that phone ringing. Thankfully, it never did.

Each morning I called the NICU at seven a.m. to get an update from Maddie’s night nurse about how she had done through the night, and the moments waiting for her to pick up the phone were horrible. Was I going to hear Maddie had done poorly and things didn’t look good? Or, if the nurse took a long time to come to the phone, did that mean she and the other medical staff were desperately fighting to stabilize Maddie at that very moment (something I had witnessed in person a number of horrible times)? My hands shook through each of those calls.

Thankfully, when the night nurse came on the phone she would always tell us about Maddie’s night in great detail despite having just finished a long, exhausting shift. The lengths these nurses went for Maddie were incredible. One night, we were told, Maddie wouldn’t respond to the ventilator, and she only survived the night because the night nurses took turns hand pumping air into her lungs for hours at a time until their hands were cramped and throbbing.

As amazing as all that was though, the thing that endeared me the most to the nurses was how they loved and valued Maddie. She wasn’t just some nameless baby behind the glass of an isolette, obscured by wires, medical tape, and breathing tubes. She was an amazing little girl named Maddie (also “Bunny” or “Little Mama” as they called her), who was beautiful and strong. I could feel that they considered her amazing and a gift, and to see others felt the same way about my daughter as I did was so meaningful.

Maddie and Nancy, her favorite nurse.
Maddie and one of her favorite nurses at the NICU reunion.

Maddie was finally released from the NICU, but there were a few times when she came down with an infection and had to be hospitalized. Those days in the hospital were both frightening and incredibly dull, and again nurses were wonderful to us. They were always there when we needed them, quick to bring a blanket or to explain what medications Maddie was taking. Like the NICU nurses, these nurses showed Maddie so much love, mooning over how cute she was and making faces at her to keep her entertained.

On the horrible day that Maddie passed there was a nurse who stayed by Heather’s side the whole time, and I am so thankful for her kindness to my wife. There was a nurse that mattered to me too that night, though she didn’t stay by my side, bring me a glass of water, or even say a word to me. In fact, I don’t think I saw her until the last few seconds I walked out of the PICU, but she made a difference nonetheless.

You see, that day my life shattered. I watched my daughter die in front of me, and it was an experience so horrific that even now it seems almost surreal, like, “Did that actually happen? To me and family?” But it did, and one of the things I remember most about it was how the key medical personnel there didn’t make me feel like they found Maddie to be beautiful and strong or amazing and a gift. The lead doctor, for example, was under a great deal of stress, but the way he pronounced her dead was not right. It was more like a referee calling the end to a heavyweight fight than the end to a beautiful child’s life. Then, as we held our dead child in our arms and kissed her goodbye, doctors stood behind the curtain discussing the specifics of what had happened with about as much feeling as mechanics discussing a broken down car.

It was only as I left the PICU that I felt humanity from the medical staff. There, sitting on a chair with a single tear rolling down her cheek, was my nurse. Her tear told me that she cared. About Heather, about me, and most importantly, about my beautiful Madeline.

That’s what nurses do that is so important. In addition to all of their medical expertise, they bring a human element to the cold, sterile world of a hospital. Doctors do great things, but have a heavy case load that means they can only visit each patient briefly each day, but the nurses will hold your hand – figuratively or literally – and remind you that you are not alone, and that your life is valued even if it can’t be saved.

When the nurses at lunch today finished their meal I wanted to thank them, but I didn’t, and I wished I had afterward. I can do one better now though:

To Nurses everywhere… You should know that you have made a difference to so many people in this world, my family included, and I cannot thank you enough.