Today in the chart

Turning Pain Into Purpose

The story of a patient that changed my life.

It was 2012, and I was a new graduate nurse in an emergency department in an urban community. It was also one of the only burn centers in the state, so we received many critical injuries. On my first shift off of orientation, we received an ambulance ring-down for a woman who had been doused in gasoline and lit on fire. It was assigned to my room. I took a deep breath and began preparing my zone for a resuscitation that would ultimately change my life. 

On arrival, my patient was nearly unrecognizable, with burns so traumatic she couldn’t be identified. Her screams were so intense that they kept me up for many nights after this shift. Despite superhuman doses of sedatives, we could not sedate her enough for intubation for what seemed like an eternity. The emergency department stood still, patients piling up in the waiting room because every resource was spent to help this woman survive. Finally, she made it to the ICU. I have only needed to leave a shift twice in my career, and this was one of them. I was a new nurse and wasn’t prepared to handle the experience. I needed to go home and decompress. As I left the unit, the seasoned nurses stayed behind to recover the rest of the department, which was in near shambles. There was no time to debrief because more patients were coming, and I felt guilty for leaving them behind. 

Years later, I realized that working in an emergency department could sometimes feel unsatisfactory. You never followed a patient through the course of their care, and you never could gauge if you were making an actual difference in people’s lives. So I started volunteering at a homeless shelter and worked in the kitchen. Oddly, I found satisfaction there because it was something to solve. People were hungry, and we fed them. I also started volunteering in their women’s health department. One night I was invited to join a women’s group by one of the counselors in the shelter. So I came and sat amongst all the brave women who got together every week to support one another. They were victims of violence. 

The last woman of the night stood up to tell her story. I didn’t know her at first, but I froze when she started speaking about her survival after being lit on fire. I couldn’t believe it. The woman that I spent years dreaming about was alive. She was smiling, and she was beautiful. She was hopeful. The person who lit her on fire wanted to take a piece of her soul, yet she wouldn’t let him have it. She was showing up to tell her story and support others who had been victims of violence. It was one of those defining moments in your life that makes you believe that the universe isn’t random. 

What I got that day was closure. The years of nightmares transformed into my tools for resilience. Whenever I have a tough day or feel like I can’t do it, I think of her. Her strength and courage are something out of a Marvel film. While nursing has been a love-hate relationship my whole life, what I will say to young nurses is that there is nothing that will compare to the ability to be with people in their worst moments. It will teach you something about yourself and life far exceeding most experiences. This woman taught me about resilience and courage. She was turning her pain into purpose in a moment that could nearly break you. Thank you, patient Jane Doe.

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