Saturday, May 9, 2009

Hearing the soldier's story as viewed by a nurse

This month marks my eight year as a registered nurse. It also marks my first year as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. As such, I am now well versed in the art of bridge building.

To work as a nurse is to work with other people’s pain. With respect to my current job, it is pain of the heart and mind as I work here, in mental health. And just like anyone who works in mental health these days, I see my fair share of soldiers. I see younger men and women from Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) and Vietnam vets.

The soldiers come and see me when they have held their pain long enough. They need to let it out or they will break apart. And in this way, they are like most of my patients. Most of my patients carry all manner of pain and/ or years of emotional chaos churning inside. I hear all of this and remain hopeful. After all, they are here, seeking help. The healing can finally begin.

Then I build a bridge. I am standing on the other side from their pain. I say, look here, see this bridge? If you let me help you, I can tell you how to cross the bridge.

I have helped a few cross the bridge. Just a few though, I am new at my job. The other side is great, they can keep their jobs, their wives say how less angry they are, how they don’t yell at the kids so much. They have healed a lot of damage just by crossing.

This bridge is very important. It is not my job to fetch the patient and carry them across. It is also not my job to live over on their side, feeling their pain. It is the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is jumping in the deep end with them. Empathy is recognizing pain but knowing it is not yours.

However, twice now, since becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, the bridge has proved useless. The first time was with a younger veteran who worked at an Iraqi hospital. He was charged with the surgical repair of children. Improvised explosive devices (IED) are part of this current war (OIF/OEF).

Their hospitals are the only ones out there. So there this solider would stand, outside the hospital doors. Vans would pull up and a dozen maimed and dying children would be placed on ground. He said this story like he was reading a recipe. There was a pause. Then he cracked and sobbed. I was calm and empathetic. Whatever I face in my career as a nurse, it will never touch what they have done.

Again, I was calm and empathetic. It didn’t hit me until I was driving home. I was taking a right and had to pull over. This story, it blew up my bridge. But not in the office, on the way home.

Then there was John, a Vietnam Vet. He had never considered his nightmares and flashbacks to be anything out of the ordinary. Never considered seeing someone like me. Never told anyone about Vietnam. Not even his wife. But he came because his wife asked him to. Maybe they can do something about your nightmares she said. Nightmares that happened 4-5 times a week for past 25 + years.

After a few appointments, he started opening. He brought in a website that his son had found. A website started by his brothers, his brothers in arms. There is no other way to understand what these soldiers mean to each other. Other then to say they are a family. He gave me a print out from the site. Then he told me the story of an explosion, of a fire, of his brothers running out of the jungle. He was powerless to stop any of it. He started to murmur something and sob very hard.

Then I was flooded with his sadness and horror. Then I realized I had to do something quick or I was going to start sobbing with him. It took every once of my nurse training to hold it in. To pull myself back to the other side of the bridge.

I sat with him, unable to say anything. Nothing would have mattered anyway. I did manage to say, I am so thankful you are here, telling me your story. I am so glad you are here.

He sobbed for about ten minutes. This man of great honor.

The soldier’s story is unlike any other I have heard as a nurse. And while I am a nurse, I have more power than one. Next time I find myself on their side of the bridge I will linger and be still. Giving witness and reaching out to meet them where they are.

As for John, after he settled, and we finished the appointment, I shook his hand. I grasped it with both of mine. I really mean that, I said, thank you for coming here and telling your story. Thank you for letting us help you however we can. And in all honesty, I hope I am helping him in some way.

It is a privilege to serve those that have served. I am humbled and grateful to be walking with them on this journey.

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