by Nancy Valko, RN
In my 41 years as a nurse, I’ve seen many amazing recoveries that left doctors shaking their heads. “Katie”, “Jim” and “Mike” are just some of the people I’ve written about in these pages over the years who regained consciousness after being labeled “permanently vegetative” or “terminally comatose”. I have seen other patients who have come back from the brink of death when recovery seemed medically impossible. But the most amazing recovery I ever witnessed was not medical.
Many years ago on my oncology (cancer) floor, we admitted a man I will call “Dave”. Dave had a cancer with a poor prognosis and was on an experimental chemotherapy regimen. I had just started working as a nurse again after 13 years as a stay-at-home mom and volunteer so I was delighted to find the nurses on this floor to be especially caring and dedicated to their patients.
That is why I was stunned by my colleagues’ reaction to Dave. Everyone dreaded taking care of him. Several nurses told me that he was the most difficult patient they had ever encountered and that his care was rotated among all the nurses so that no one nurse would be overwhelmed. Everyone wanted to give Dave the best care and support possible but his behavior was unrelentingly outrageous no matter how hard the nurses tried.
Then I was told that I would be the next nurse in line to care for Dave. In preparation, I read his chart and talked to his doctor about the situation. I have to admit that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when the doctor told me that he believed that Dave was not mentally ill but possibly just “evil”.
I prayed about the situation and then told the other nurses that I wanted to care for Dave for the entire week as his primary nurse. “No problem”, they all said. I thought that perhaps a behavior modification approach might help to defuse the situation so Dave could get at least the basic care he needed.
I had to leave my fear and anxiety at the door when I entered Dave’s room for the first time. I found that the other nurses were not exaggerating Dave’s behavior. From the first moment we met, Dave glared at me and tried to goad me with unending complaints and inappropriate comments. However, day one ended without one of Dave’s storied meltdowns so I was slightly encouraged.
Days two and three were the same. But on day four, a night shift, Dave was calm and almost pleasant until he unexpectedly started crying and screaming. I closed the door and sat down next to Dave after another nurse motioned that she would watch my other patients, who were sleeping.
At first, it was hard to understand Dave’s words but finally I recognized that Dave not in physical pain but rather he was mostly screaming at God in frustration. “Where are You? Why are You punishing me?” were some of his outbursts.
As Dave let me hold his hand, I was praying silently as hard as I could and told him, “God does love you.” That was all I could think of to say. Mostly I just listened to him in silence.
Dave’s agony lasted for about three hours until he was exhausted and hoarse. He lay back down on the bed and closed his eyes for a long time. I thought he had fallen asleep, when he suddenly sat up, actually smiled, and said he was hungry and wanted to walk.
A couple of hours later, the day-shift nurses came in and their jaws dropped when they saw us walking in the hall. Dave had long refused to even get out of bed but now he was actually smiling and waving to the nurses. Later, they asked me what happened. I told them truthfully that I didn’t exactly know but Dave seemed to have a miraculous spiritual healing. “It won’t last”, predicted one nurse.
But it did. It turned out that Dave was a Catholic and we made sure he received Holy Communion daily both in the hospital and at home when he was discharged. Over the next year and a half, I saw Dave a few times, including one time for an especially bad complication. Each time, Dave just radiated kindness and gratitude despite that fact that he knew his cancer was progressing. He told me that his faith was his greatest source of strength and that while he still hoped for a recovery, he was prepared for death.
At one point, a student nurse was assigned to him and told me that Dave was the most inspiring patient she had ever met. I told her Dave’s remarkable story and that there was a lesson to be learned by us nurses: It’s easy to care for patients who are cooperative and say thanks but it’s often the most difficult patients who need us the most. We can’t cure every disease or heal every heart but we can always offer to be there for our patients and sometimes, as in Dave’s case, we can see an expected and wonderful outcome.
I was privileged to care for Dave at the end of his life. He met death with a peaceful heart and a statue of the Blessed Virgin overlooking him.
Jesus miraculously healed many people during His lifetime but the physical healing was also accompanied by spiritual healing. As Jesus said to one woman He healed “Your faith has saved you”. (Mt 9:18-26) In Dave’s case, physical healing didn’t happen but his spiritual healing was the greatest recovery I ever witnessed. Indeed, Dave’s faith did save him in the most important way.
Nancy Valko, a registered nurse from St. Louis, is president of Missouri Nurses for Life, a spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses and a Voices contributing editor.
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