Divinity, Service and Gratitude: WHO Year of the Nurse and Midwife
Guest post by Aislynn
Aislynn is a pediatric nurse and will soon graduate as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She loves finding glimpses of God on hikes, while baking, and in Mumford and Sons lyrics. She lives with her husband and two crazy kids in Northern Virginia.
Nursing is a unique blend of science and people skills. Combining knowledge with practical, fast paced skills is what first led me to a career in nursing. Now, six years after passing the infamous NCLEX, I stay in nursing for a different, selfish reason. My shifts at the hospital are how I wrestle with God. Soon after graduating, I entered the rocky spiritual pilgrimage of a faith crisis. Three hours of church on Sunday during a faith transition leaves much to be desired. God became stale to me, served on prepared platters of patriarchy each Sunday. In my first hospital job after licensure, I readily agreed to work weekend shifts to avoid getting pressure ulcers from sitting in cushioned pews.
I read an article titled “Helping, Fixing, Serving” years before I was a nurse in preparation for working in a Romanian children’s hospital.
The article delineated differences between the three verbs: “Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.” (Reference: Remen, R.N., Kitchen Table Wisdom, September 1999). Nursing, at its core, is about connecting with humanity emotionally and physically. This definition of service defines my work as a nurse.
Vibrancy crept back into my faith as I worked weekend night shifts. God became alive again through the miles walked on my unit. I learned what it was to connect with infants unable to breathe: to feel anxious and utterly confused, then the sweet relief of flowing oxygen. I strategized with weary parents on how to avoid waking up a chronically ill toddler in the middle of the night: to preserve a sliver of quiet in an otherwise chaotic rotation of needles, drugs, and loss of control. Advocacy became a hallmark of my nights, finding strength amplifying patient’s needs in the wee hours of the morning.
Connection is not at all glamorous nor quietly spiritual. Connection is gritty, mortal, and bold. Bodily fluids of all textures and colors are heavily involved. The human body has a myriad of secrets only divulged under deep stress: the smell of a wound freshly stitched and cauterized, the sight of a swollen body filled with tubes, the sounds of illicitly obtained Hot Cheetos being regurgitated into a colostomy bag. I was heavily pregnant with my daughter about a year after starting weekend night shifts. I lugged her around inside me, a witness to these secrets. We would waddle down the halls fetching ice water and convincing stubborn baby hearts to continue beating.
My experience with connection as service was not limited to the physical. There were many difficult social situations with patients and families on the unit. Sometimes, babies would be left alone by family members due to economic pressures or a logistical inability to be present. One weekend I was assigned to care for such a baby, who I’ll call Sam. Sam was a beautiful baby, a head full of dark hair and gorgeous eyes. Weekends tended to be shorter staffed and I had a full assignment. I was trying to complete my tasks as efficiently as possible, multiple needs and deadlines competing for priority in my mind. I was bending over Sam, giving medication through a tube when I felt a little hand grab at my sleeve. The hand would grab and let go, grasping for something. Throughout my experiences in Romania and other nursing opportunities I had felt little and big hands like that before: hands reaching for love, for something they know they are missing.
I picked Sam up and held them close for a moment. My back was kinked. I was hot and stressed about my other patients. But I picked this baby up, grasping their hands in return for their reaching. I watched as Sam’s eyes closed in a tired respite, just wanting to feel comforted by another being.
Often, nursing is filled with charting, running around, and simply completing tasks. But that weekend, cleaning up Sam whenever they vomited and anticipating their need for pain meds, slowing down a tube feeding, or diarrhea diaper changes, nursing was service. Dr. Naomi Remen stated: “Service is a relationship between equals… Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out…In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude.” Sam was a child of the Divine, just as we all are. Sam’s core needs reflected my own needs: a need to be seen, to be felt, to be heard.
Service through nursing rarely answers my existential questions flung towards the heavens. Every shift, I wrestle with the problem of pain, suffering, and injustice. This is the truth I’ve found: God is in the space between two hands reaching for each other. The Church denies me hierarchical authority to serve sacraments of bread and water between church pews. Instead, I find gratitude through serving a sacrament of antibiotics, ice chips, or fresh diapers to glimpses of God in the rooms of a hospital.