LIFE ON R7

words SALLY SEMPLE

I took this photograph in 2005 of the Philadelphia mural dedicated to the nursing profession.

I was about 8 when I began dreaming of becoming a nurse. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

I began nursing in England when I was 17. I am British, born and raised in England, and came to Maine in 1989. My late husband, Ken, died a little over four years later. I hadn’t initially returned to my nursing career after I moved here mainly because I knew very little about the American health care system, much less about how nursing might be different from how it was in England.

When Ken became sick, I took care of him. After he died one of the letters I received was from his kindly surgeon who wrote: “You took such amazing care of Ken that I hope
one day you will return to nursing. Or fill in for Florence Nightingale in some other humanitarian way.” It was those words that initially triggered my decision to return to nursing.

I went to nursing school, worked hard and graduated from the University of New England in 2000. Although I hadn’t imagined or thought to pursue a career at Maine Medical Center in Portland, on invitation I went to a job fair there the summer I graduated and immediately loved the atmosphere. Everyone was so supportive and kind and went out of their way to welcome me.

So when I was offered a position on the cardiac unit (R7) I jumped at the chance.

How do you explain to someone what nursing is like? It’s in your heart. It’s a part of who you are. And especially when you are in such a special place and working alongside people who are not only your coworkers but your friends. We all say the same about R7—that it’s an extension of our own families.

Working nights, I found there is something about the stillness when your patients are finally sleeping. You walk into the room, look down on them, and you know that for that brief time they are at peace; they are not in pain and they are not afraid of a forthcoming procedure the next day or a piece of news their doctor might have told them. Whatever happens, as a nurse I want to make their stay as personal as I can.

I love to talk to my patients and try to get them to talk about themselves or their families. With an elderly patient, it might be about what they may have done for work before they retired. You’d be surprised at how many people love to share a little part of themselves, and I believe it all helps build a level of trust between nurse and patient. But even more, it builds a level of humanness between two ordinary people.

I always remember one night I was admitting a delightful lady in her mid-90s who was fiercely independent. She lived alone, albeit with family close by. She used neither a cane nor a walker to get about. “They’re just for old people” was the response I got. So I said to her, “Next you’re going to tell me you still drive, right?” “Yes, I do,” the lady told me, “and get this: They even renewed my driving license until I’m 102!”

We hug our patients. We laugh with them. We take joy in the family photographs they show us. We cry with them. And we cry with each other and we support each other.

Holidays are a special time, especially Christmas. Family members will string up battery-operated mini lights for their loved ones. Hang up a stocking. Bring in their Christmas gifts. Nurses and CNAs and our support staff will wear something festive. We try to decorate our unit and Maine Medical Center always holds a window decorating contest between the units. On R7 we pick a special charity, school or family that needs supplies or gifts they may not have the funds to get and as a unit we all bring something in and then a group of our nurses will deliver the Christmas gifts we have put together to them.

Likewise, the families of our patients bring us boxes of chocolates or some fruit or some other goodies to share. But not just at holiday time. We receive so many amazing cards and letters of appreciation all year just to say a simple thank you.

Being a cardiac unit we raise money for the American Heart Association each spring by holding a walk along Back Cove in Portland. We raise money with donations, selling red hearts that we pin up on our windows on R7 and we hold bake sales. Individually, a nurse or a CNA will take it upon themselves to raise money for a charity that was set up in a past patient’s name.

We work long hours. We work hard. Sometimes we don’t take a break because our patients are so sick. Call bells are constantly ringing. We pay no attention to time, but we save lives.

Yet, sometimes we lose one. That’s the hard part of nursing. It’s when we worked hard, but it wasn’t enough. As someone once reminded me several years ago after a tough shift, how many other people can go home after work and say “I saved somebody’s life last night?”

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