The Person Behind the Mask

Three Things I Learned During Twelve Hours in Intensive Care

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With my daughter Charlotte, a Critical Care Registered Nurse
I recently spent a 12 hour shift shadowing my daughter Charlotte, a nurse in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the University of Virginia Medical System.

We’ve all seen the stories – cruise ship passengers quarantined in a gargantuan “petrie dish” as the world waits for the Coronavirus to run its course. The only way off the ship is to test positive, at which point the victim is whisked to a hospital where they are held in isolation under the care of medical professionals.

The stories typically profile the victim and include commentary from those still on the ship, but the medical professionals remain an enigma – an unseen face behind a mask – an anonymous fellow human who somehow has the skills, resources and courage to deal directly with something that inspires stomach-churning dread in the rest of us. Like their peers in law enforcement and the military, they run towards danger – but instead of the crackle of gunfire, it’s the sound of labored breathing, a troubling cough, or an insistent medical alarm.

Who are these people? 

I was recently privileged to shadow one of these elite teams – the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

On a typical day these young professionals – 80% of whom are women – are caring for patients with conditions that are a danger only to the patients themselves – ailments like kidney disease or drug overdoses, or injuries from a car accident or an unscheduled trip over the handlebars of a mountain bike. 

But when Mother Nature fires up her arsenal of deadly microbes – infectious agents with names like MRSA, SARS, and Ebola – the nurses of the MICU suddenly find themselves on the front lines of a battle – a battle to save lives and prevent the spread of a pandemic through a vulnerable human population. 

How do they do it? As an observer, I saw three things.

First, ICU nurses are a rare combination of deep technical skills and personal resilience. As they work through seemingly relentless challenges – through the messy, routinely dangerous reality of face-to-face intensive medical care – their knowledge is reinforced by frequent training and tempered by a willingness to consider new data and new approaches. They do, learn and adapt.

Second, the ICU team is a case study in calm, inspiring leadership. The team provides medical care and emotional support to patients and their families, but they are also there for each other, defusing a difficult moment with a touch on the shoulder, an “are you ok?” and a nod in return. 

Third, they possess a genuine commitment to serve others at their most vulnerable – providing compassionate care to patients who are experiencing the worst, and perhaps last, day of their lives. On this day, that included helping a military veteran live and die with dignity. The team honored his life and the effort to save it by breaking the blur of activity for “the pause” – sixty seconds during which staff and a contingent of the local VFW celebrated the life just ended and the fight to save it. 

So, when you have a moment, thank a nurse for their service. If the moment is right, give them a hug or shake their hand. And don’t be surprised if they hit the hand sanitizer afterwards. 

It’s a nurse thing.

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