It was another Saturday night in the intermediate step-down unit where I had been working as a registered nurse for a little over a year. I suctioned Harry and decided to bathe him because it was already 4 AM, and I thought I’d have him “fluffed and buffed” by the change of shift.
Harry and I spent many Saturday nights together. We had CNN on and the lights dimmed while I chattered to this 69-year-old man who was far away from home. He and his wife Claire had been driving through Pittsburgh in their Winnebago, fulfilling a dream to travel throughout the United States.
On a cool March morning, Harry and Claire stopped to “gas up” the Winnebago and have breakfast before moving on to Washington, D. C. to see the cherry blossoms in bloom. As the two began to drive out of the gas station, Harry clutched his chest and, putting the Winnebago in park, lost consciousness.
Alone in a strange city without family or friends, Claire called 911, described their situation, and waited for help. The paramedics arrived, stabilized Harry, and sent them to Allegheny General Hospital. After an unsuccessful angioplasty of his coronary blood vessels, Harry was sent to the OR for emergent coronary bypass surgery. Harry never regained consciousness. He was put on a ventilator and his electrolytes were unstable. The calendar changed. Harry’s mediastinal wounds had healed, and Claire continued to sit faithfully by his side day after day, but Harry was still asleep after sixty-one days.
I bathed Harry as I continued my one-sided conversation with him about my diabetic dog. I washed his arm and carefully in between each and every finger, because nurses often forget those parts, and then I respectfully asked Harry to hold his arm up so that I could wash under it, though I knew he couldn’t hear me. This evening was different for Harry and me though. This time when I asked him to hold up his arm, I could feel his arm straighten and stiffen. I let go of his wrist and his arm stayed in the air!
With tears in my eyes, I asked Harry if he could hear me, but his eyes remained shut and his facial expression was unchanged. I then asked him to squeeze my hand and he did. By the end of the week Harry was awake and following commands. Eleven weeks after surgery, Harry’s tracheostomy tube had been capped and he began to whisper.
Harry asked where he was, and where was Claire, his wife and best friend for 37 years. We had been chatting for an hour when he looked at me with the deepest blue eyes I have ever seen in a man his age, and asked me how my dog was. Stories about my diabetic dog, Marti’s little girl, Dr. Rich’s fishing trip, and details about a surprise spring snow began pouring from his lips. I’ve had patients tell me stories that they had remembered hearing while asleep, but never did a patient remember so many different stories in so much detail. After 77 days, Harry and Claire walked out of the hospital together to go home to Oregon to recuperate.
Nine years have passed since I met Harry, and I continue to talk to my patients about the weather, world issues, their family, and what has been happening on my favorite television shows, even though my patients may be unconscious or unable to clearly understand the words that I babble.
I know that my patients can hear me speak hopeful words. They can feel me touch them with caring hands, and they know, for that moment, that I am caring only about them while I wait for them to wake from a sleep that cannot always end with a stretch and a yawn.
Karen A. Tarolli, RN, BSN
Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh, PA