Sal

The specifics of my story take place on New Year’s Eve in Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York.  While this special time was shared this night, a longer tale of “touched” was ongoing for about five months prior and continued for ten months after that evening.

I was a new grad in August, having been working on a Surgical Specialty unit for six weeks. I was 19 years old at the time.  Sal was admitted after surgery during the day shift.  He was 16 years old, and had been working a construction job with his father when he fell off a high ladder.  He sustained a broken spine and was paralyzed from the neck down.  The prognosis was somewhat hopeful for slight recovery but pretty bleak for full functioning.  We were told he would recover some abilities over the course of a year and that it was not clearly predictable what his condition would be at the end of that time.  The entire staff was particularly taken with his youth and extent of his disability.  Sal came to us in a full body cast, asleep from anesthetics and pain medications.  I vividly remember thinking, “How awful!  What a tragedy, he is so young.”  Actually, the reality of how close in age we were was particularly disturbing.

Sal was a GREAT patient, he rarely complained, he was almost always in a good mood.  When some awful and ugly medical procedures needed to be done, or some routine but pretty uncomfortable physical needs were cared for, he was quick to set the way for humor and a sense of decorum.  Sal, at 16, had wisdom and wit that had style.  People might think this was a “New York” style.  He was raised in Brooklyn, one of four children to a poor-middle class blue- collar father and homemaking mother.  They were of Italian decent, Catholic by religion. Sal said, “I’m not much of a student, I like working with my Dad, as soon as he’ll let me quit school I will.” For 16, he seemed somewhat mature, certainly flirtatious and a bit precocious.  He had a girlfriend who visited frequently when he was admitted, but after a few weeks, slowed her pace.  His mother, father and three sisters visited every evening initially and after a couple of months, they too slowed their visiting to once or twice a week.

Sal put up a good front, but the reality of his situation was very obvious to us, his caretakers and “new” family.

I loved being a nurse, I loved working with the patients, the feeling of ‘helping’ people and doing some good.  I loved “talking” with the patients.  I felt a strong need to listen to them and let them share with me their feelings as they encountered physical hurdles that left them emotionally unbalanced.

Sal and I shared many touching moments over the long span of his inpatient stay on my unit, but New Year’s Eve stands out as somewhat special.  I regularly worked the day shift, but during the holiday week, Sal asked if I would work New Year’s Eve.  I considered his request against the possibility of attending a friend’s party as well as my general dislike for the night shift.  I decided, oh well, what the hey, and switched with a grateful co-worker to work that night.

Arriving on the unit at 11 PM, I took report and found us full as usual.  There were no untoward events occurring, and all patients were resting comfortably.  Many would be discharged the next day.  Making my first set of rounds, Sal was awake and asked me to make sure to come to see him before Midnight and wish him a Happy New Year.  After managing my routine duties, I checked on Sal, thinking, “What a New Year for this kid, what is his future, what is his hope?” I got back to him at Midnight, after rounds, Sal smiled brightly and displayed a bottle of Champagne.  Whew, I thought, this is not ok. Sal is under age, he’s a patient under my care and shouldn’t be drinking and it sure isn’t ok for me to be drinking champagne with him.  He told me I was a “fuddy-duddy”, he assured me he had no sleep nor pain medications, (confirmed as true) and reminded me that- “Well, what the heck, life is short!” His father had bought him the champagne as a gift for a NEW, New Year, “Make a wish”, he said, “and it will come true!”  Sal asked me to help wish him to walk again in the New Year.

Despite all my reasonable concerns my “gut” told me Sal needed to do this. So, we shared one glass of champagne for me, and frankly I’m not sure how many for him.  We wished for his walking power.  My rational brain told me this was not ok, but my heart said, yes, this is how to touch a person who happens to be a patient.  Sal was touched by a nurse, but I was touched by a patient.

At the end of a very long stay, Sal, at 17 was discharged to a rehabilitation facility.  He had the ability to stand with assistance, but not walk as yet.  I think of him still.  He would be about 45 years old now, I hope he can walk.  Sal taught me that my true talent is in the “talking” field and I have worked in Mental Health for the past 25 years, hopefully touching others with my heart as they continue to touch me with theirs.  The talented science of nursing is a phenomenon but the “touching” art of nursing is our true talent.

Marlene Nadler  (Moodie), RN
Maimonides Medical Center

– excerpted from Touched By a Nurse©