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The Other Side

I have seen maybe close to a hundred deaths, up close and personal. I am not an executioner nor am I a soldier. I am a nurse, an ICU nurse. I have taken care of the sickest of the sick and been witness to countless heartbreaking moments in peoples' lives. I have held the hands of the hopeless and given comfort when relief is just out of reach. I have looked into the eyes of a person as they were slipping away, I have silenced heart monitors when they alarm in the absence of vital signs. I have even given the dose of morphine that lets a person slip peacefully into death.

Much like when we are born, death is one of the most intimate of moments. It can be a moment a nurse dreads or a moment that fills you with peace.

Today my grandfather died. It was the first time I have ever been on "the other side". I was the one who was looking to the nurse to comfort my family. I was the one who was watching the monitors hoping for a miracle against all odds. I was the one who watched my family crumble as the monitor lines went flat.

Today I have a new appreciation for my profession. I took comfort in my knowledge; I was able to answer my family's questions as my grandfather's respirations grew slower. I knew what was coming as I had seen it so many times before. In a way, I envy those who were able to look at my grandfather and not know his breathing pattern was Cheyne-Stokes and what that meant. I was envious of my mother who thought he might have days to live. But I knew. I knew that within hours my grandfather, who used to sneak over to my house to hide from my grandmother and take a nap, would be gone forever. I knew that his respirations would slow until eventually there were none. I knew the chances of ever hearing his voice again were now over. I knew what was coming.

I watched my grandfathers' nurse flit in and out of his room, going unnoticed by the majority of my family members. She did her job deftly and with care. She gave my family and I space to comfort one another when the moment came. She silenced the alarms with a quickness that I appreciated when the monitor lines all went flat.

Today I was not a nurse; I was one of the family members who grieved as a loved one was lost. Today I was the family member who didn't say thank you for providing excellent care. Today I was focused on my grandfather's last moments.

Tomorrow I will not be on "the other side". Tomorrow I will be a nurse. Tomorrow I will teach my graduate nursing students. I will strive to make families more comfortable when their loved ones time grows shorter. Tomorrow I will take the extra time and effort to make sure that my patients leave this world with their dignity intact, much like my grandfather's nurse did today.
Michelle Elske MSN, RN-BC, is a clinical nurse educator at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

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