Behind the mask I am just a girl. With the mask on I am heralded a “hero” and “amazing person”, yet I don’t feel like it at all.
I don’t need claps or praise or for everyone to tell me how good a job I am doing, or how “it must be really hard but be strong”.
After months and months of this, after months of working so hard, crying after every shift, being separated from family and friends, I want to be done. I’m not sure I can do this anymore.
My last post was a brief highlight of my life as a nurse in the NHS in London, England. Like many places across the world we are in a fight and we are pushing ourselves to physical and mental limits. I am not aged yet, but I feel a hundred years old. My hair is going greyer by the days, my face is wrinkled and dried up, my energy is barely replenished by sleep and I have pains all over. I am one of the “capable” professionals, but I am not a hero.
We see a patient, we try our best and we move on to the next. Then back to the other, make the rounds again, answer the crash bells, turn the patients, check the ventilators, do the meds, check the tubing, change that drain, transfuse that blood, discuss with doctors, try and call family.
Then have a break.
I love the job, it is an amazing place to be. However, like anything, there is only so far I can go. There is only so much my head can take. I won’t forget to breathe when this is all over, but I don’t know what might happen when I finally do.
As I walked into the room, I barely knew which person was the patient and which was the company. Both women, standing there in front of me, similar ages, similar physical beauty and dress. Then she smiled, and I knew right away who I was to be focusing my energy on for the next 11 hours of the shift. She smiled like she was holding her breath, like she had just been told the terrible news that she had cancer and was completely resilient to the fact that she was here for gruelling therapy.
Like a job interview, she seemed ready, like she was making an impression. At work, we don’t need impressions much, we just come to work, do our best in the job and then go home, and this is the safest way to protect our heart from the inevitability of some people’s journeys. That smile showed me a lot, and instantly I fell for it, because it had a friendliness and uncertainty in it which was beautiful to me.
She seemed so well and she was doing so well I thought. So I let myself get close to her. I let myself wander in on quiet afternoons on the ward just to have conversations about random things, or to see what lovely item was sent in the post to her that day. We spoke about a lot of different things and when I walked into her room my eyes would scan her shelves, table and wall at the pictures of her loved ones watching over her. I would find her sitting in her bed, showered and ready for the day. She would wear these big hoop earrings and do her makeup just to feel a little bit normal among all the illness. She was wonderful.
I would request her to care for just so I could have a breather from the stress other patients provided, she would always relax me and damn, I took that for granted because look at us now. I see her now in my head, standing at the windows with her binoculars looking down on the street, searching for her little dog that her sister had brought for her to see, these fourteen floors up. Fourteen floors closer to heaven.
She knew about me, knew about my life and what I had been up to on my days off. She knew the colour of my eyes and what my smile looked like under the masks we wore. With her Polaroid camera she begged to take a picture of me, just so she would remember me. But it is me that is remembering her, remembering her bright eyes that radiated sunlight, or dry sarcasm that would have me laughing through the door and down the corridor. I admired her resilience. “I’ve got this, I’ll fight this” she would say to me, and I believed it.
She was in remission and all my beliefs came true because she had fought it. She returned for a transplant, success.
It hadn’t even been two months when I saw her name pop up on our admissions list. My stomach turned thinking of why she had returned. The rumour surfaced of her relapse, it was all back and it was worse, there was nothing more they could do.
My heart sank and tore and bled.
She went home. I forgot to say goodbye.
She came back, this time worse and still, I didn’t see her.
News came that she was in intensive care and all I could think was about her, all the time. That woman who spent so much time making others feel better, making me feel like I was the best nurse in the world and like I could do anything, was coming to the end of this life.
It made me feel sick and so incredibly sad for her. I thought about her all the time, wondering if I would make it back to work in time to see her, to tell her what an impression she made on me. To thank her.
Finally I got myself down to the third floor on a shift at work. I was panicking and my stomach was in my mouth. I was scared to see her, scared to know that this was it, the probable last time I would see her face.
Room 4. I was mistaken for another team as I gowned up to go in, putting on a smile to the nearest colleague asking me what my intentions were on the unit, as I was far from home. I was directed in, and up stood her sister, the same beautiful company I could have mistaken her for in the first seconds of meeting. She lay on the bed, machines, lines and bedcovers surrounded her. All I would look at was her face and I will have it in my head for some time yet, I’m sure.
I don’t know what I said to her, I could barely think of words to say that didn’t end up with notions of life and death. I watched her eyes, opening little and often when I leaned in to talk to her or when she would wake herself up accidentally when her bent knees fell sideways and I would hold them lightly so she didn’t have to use up all her energy.
I can’t have spent very long in there. I think I could have stayed all day. She deserved for me to stay by her side but I had to leave to get back to my other patients. They didn’t seem to deserve me at that point, not when I felt so drawn to her. She always cared for me, regardless of being the patient. I didn’t deserve her, she is too good for this world.
I did not return to the ICU that day, nor the next. I hastily await Thursday to know if I will see her one last time, or whether that Tuesday morning will have been my final farewell to a wonderful person. I hope she got to go home, and I hope she is peaceful, whether she is still here right now, or with God.
That day was the last day I saw her. A week later she died, some 6 days after her birthday. To say that my heart hurt would be an understatement, for I will always be grateful for our moments together.
I once heard that you meet your soulmate before the age of 21. I don’t know who wrote that, but something in me smiles in adolescent memory.
We met when we were 17, in the midst of exams and parties and turbulent friendships. He was one of the first guys I fell for in a way that made me really nervous. We hadn’t even met before we first conversed by text (so 21st century I know) knowing that that coming summer, we would be forced into 3 weeks of European travel that would ultimately end in the great friendship we have now. That time was strange and we bonded in series of texts and small gatherings at friends houses, drinking too much and staying up too late talking.
If I’m honest, he annoyed the hell out of me. He was arrogant and self righteous in a geeky sort of way, which was the most uncool arrogance of all. His hair hung like curtains around his face, he was tall and wide eyes and just plain boyish. Though, despite this, he was always sweet to me and never treated me with one bad look or word.
Our travels only heightened our irritating brother/sister- like friendship, but I didn’t know that all that time we were really just connecting on levels unknown to us, on a level deeper than we might have thought. We were adults but we were still children with very few life experiences between us. I took comfort in that.
Time passed and we grew apart, then back together and then apart again. This was the way we were, the way we all are now in our little friendship group from that pivotal time in life up until now nearing 24 years of age.
Over the course of years we would meet as friends, exchange messages even about how we were once destined to be together but maybe missed the chance. We would talk about keeping each other warm in cold months and why, on each cold night we found reasons to not be together. Time just went on like that, but our friendship still over ruled everything.
So then, when I found out he had a girlfriend at university, the pang of hurt shocked me into leaving him be, leaving him to find happiness with someone who wouldn’t keep making excuses. I didn’t mind, as long as he was happy. I didn’t think about us as mates for a long while really, even when mentioning him to family in passing memories or remarks and deflecting their prodding of our adolescent connection. Shrugging it off most of the time I continued with the conversations and then continued on with the dating life that always ultimately ended in my failed attempts at relationships.
I was never good in relationships. Unlike him, I was a serial dater never feeling content with pursuing someone that I didn’t feel all of my expectations with. Maybe because I’m insecure that I put up these unrealistic expectations, I don’t know.
Then one day I meet this guy, this wonderful caring and completely crazy for me, guy. My feelings grew and grew and before long he was the longest relationship I’d been in and it was strong. I was happy in my quiet life.
Then he came back, like a wind blowing up from the south. That warm wind that brought back my friend into my life, into my reach again. It is so easy with him, with affection in our presence around each other and for some reason, it’s like all my worries melt away. I couldn’t think of my life without him, I wouldn’t want to.
I sit, lay, stand pensive, wondering if this warm wind, this nostalgic cupboard of memories, is my soulmate.
My last post was extremely difficult to share, but I did it because everyone deserves to know that the biggest heroes out there aren’t the NHS workers but the resilient, brave and strong patients like L. I miss her, and even though our relationship was professional in almost every aspect, it is impossible to ignore the raw vulnerabilities of a person when they are laid out for you to see every day. Every smile and laugh I got from her was like a reward for helping her, we gave each other something.
I respect her so much and it is with reservations that I post this, but she was the reason I didn’t give up so early on in my career. She made that helpless, exhausted, runaway girl feel as if she was doing something right for the first time in her life, I will ALWAYS be grateful for that, for all the memories since, and all the days to come.
LR was the first patient that made me feel like I was actually a nurse. She needed me and I, in some ways, needed her. She gave me confidence and hope and strength. Gosh, the strength of that woman you couldn’t believe. LR had lymphoma, the third life threatening cancer she has encountered in her near four decades of life. This was the first thing that captured me-what a person, what a fight this person has had to get this far, and then to be told this final cancer might be the one to end her life.
She was the first patient that made me feel any good as a nurse, the patient that, when I looked into her eyes, showed me that I was needed. Whatever the time or need, I would be there. She was my soft spot. As weeks went past they tried chemo after chemo and finally a new treatment that was supposedly going to be the breakthrough in the haematology world. LR grew weak, separated from her loving husband and sweet young daughter she leaned on us for support and we gave it, because she was part of our team now and we wanted desperately to save her life. So so many nights I stayed up with her as she rigored in bed, bled from her back and cried through the fear. So many days I made her smile and laugh so she would know that she wasn’t alone, timing her endless medication and transfusions she needed just to get through a day.
Months went by and nothing changed, it was day in, day out and nothing. Slowly, she deteriorated. The treatment didn’t work.
One day I came in, they told me she wasn’t right. She was not well at all and stared blankly into the walls and barely into my eyes when I got her attention. Her husband sat on a chair next to her bed, his torso covering her in protection, exhausted. Unable to speak or move properly, I did everything I could to make her well again but many hours passed and LR went to the ICU. Holding her hand, and holding her husband as he cried, we went down there. When I came back up, LR did not. “I’ll come and visit you” I said, as I finished my handover to the ICU nurse and squeezed LR’s hand gently, thinking in my head “please don’t go”.
I walked briskly out and back to the ward, taking some time looking over the view at the window with tears streaming from my eyes and no body around to tell me everything would be alright.
I gathered myself, went back to my colleagues and finished my shift, smiling kindly at my remaining patients like my heart hadn’t just broken a little. That was the hardest, the pretending. LR was on my mind.
The following morning I woke to a text. “RIP LR”, and as tears broke out from behind my eyes, I sobbed in my room, grief ridden. It was so quick. I had tried to do so much the day before, to save some time from the horrible inevitability of her death, but it had been futile. Though now when I think of it, it had all been for her. All those sleepless nights and busy days, they were all done in the projection of her own beautiful hope. She knew that ultimately she wasn’t going to make it but she tried, and she fought with everything in her and i saw that. She made me want to fight for her with everything in me. We both lost her fight.
I still see her face, even in the room that was once hers, I see the memories. I can’t remember all the things that happened, but I remember everything that I felt and that is what will last. I see her husband in my head, and her beautiful daughter who now needs to be so brave. I see the food that she liked and feel her hand squeezing mine like that one time she was having cells taken from her back.
She was so weak at the end but I’d never met anyone stronger.
I am so grateful to have known her, and I’m proud to be me. I hope I can be as strong as her.
When one person can make you feel like everything in the world is ok and will be ok…?
The nostalgia and the strength that comes from it is exactly what I needed, I could almost cry from the momentary relief if brought to me. It took me back to a day where I felt free, where I was young and vulnerable and felt like the world was at my feet. When we met I was that person and ever since I have just been becoming someone I’m not entirely happy with. Times with her make me feel like I could be that person again. They make me feel like somehow I could go back to being my own sunshine. Things get me down so much, so easily, I just have to get to a point where I just cannot let them. I am so bloody lucky to have what i have, no matter how hard it is. I have a great job that is so hard yes, but so important in the sense that I get to help people who really need me. That’s an amazing thing no matter what. I have a family, a huge family filled with so much love that sometimes I don’t even know how to process. Isn’t that just ridiculous? And then I have friends like her, friends that just connect to me on a personal level, make me feel like I am understood even if it is in a moment of craziness. She makes me feel more normal in what I feel. She makes me feel like I’m not the only person in the world curious about things or wanting to test limits and I love that. I need that. And although we have grown up differently, there will always be that connection and that is a wonderful thing.
She woke at 5am with an alarming sense of enthusiasm for the day. When usually she would be glazed-eyed and grumpy at waking in the early hours, she instead accepted the morning with pleasure.
A break in the curtains shielding the draft of a cool morning showed her that the day was already going to be cool and bright, with the perfect kind of morning for a ride in the forest.
Some minutes later her jodhpurs were on and with her boots hastily pulled from the rack, she crept out the front door and into the car. The drive was silent and peaceful, the wide roads barren with only the neighbours cat, Bowie, prowling the streets. He too, looked peaceful, his face composed and fragile, like he was both in deep thought and no thought at all.
Besides Bowie, her focus was on the huge black gates squeaking open at her arrival, being conscious of her early visit and the neighbours surrounding the farm. They were dark an ominous to those who didn’t know what was through them, but to her, it felt like coming home.
The grass was wet in the fields and the huge estate home with the lavender flowerbeds became the object of her desire as it was illuminated by the dew. Since childhood it had been the house of fairytales, it’s provincial beams and large windows were just the image of something from Proust or Flaubert. It was dreamy.
As the sky woke, she stumbled across the divots in the field to find her horse, a sweet charismatic gelding, who she has had since she was 13 years old. He brushed against her with affection as she led him in for hay and water. Upon their meeting the sky lit up in a bright pink, bouncing across every corner of her eyes and through the trees and over the barn and all around. She remained the only spectator and felt as though the world had performed this spectacle to treat only her. That moment was solitary and special, for the rest of her day was filled with so many obligations to so many people. She, at least, knew she had this moment where the sky made her feel infinite.