Rockford, Illinois, United States (Winter 2010)Her name was Krystal; she was four years old, and she was tiny—her head barely reaching the top of my knees. She was in the hospital, again, for another surgical procedure. She had undergone twenty-one surgeries since she was born, most related to her defective bowel development, and all the surgeries had occurred at this Chicago hospital, even though it was a long trek from her home in west Texas. I was a student nurse on my pediatrics rotation, and she was the patient that most amazed me. She was so used to the hospital setting—unlike me, who was still struggling to understand what I was doing there, fumbling to appear poised and confident. My faculty instructor, Ruth, had assigned me to Krystal and a five-week-old infant boy, and it would be the first day I would handle two patients at the same time. Ruth assured me that I would be fine; her manner was poised, confident and serene, with the natural instincts for nursing that she had honed over her extensive thirty years of experience. I appreciated Ruth’s calmness and assurance, fed off them and used them as crutches, until I could develop such attributes as my own. So, armed with buoyant confidence and a wavering degree of bravado, I collected and assembled Krystal’s eighteen medications for her seven o’clock administration and knocked once again on her door.
Krystal didn’t like the injections, but the oral medications could be administered through her G-tube, and Krystal made a game out of it. She wanted to administer her own meds through the tube, and her mother, who was consistently at her bedside, assured me she was an old pro at this. As I opened her port and handed her the different medications, Krystal squirted each one in, delighted that I was so enamored with her skill and deftness of technique. After she had gotten her injections, I told Krystal she was a very brave girl, that I noticed she had barely cried, and told her how impressed I was that she could give her own medications with speed and grace. Krystal smiled and said I could be her friend forever. I told her I would be honored, and even though I never had a four-year-old friend before, I was sure she would teach me how. She smiled shyly at this and seemed secretly amused. She told me she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up, just like me. Later, I wondered aloud to my instructor, Ruth, how long someone in Krystal’s condition could thrive, and would she ever have a chance to grow up into adulthood? Ruth said knowingly, and with a certain amount of sadness, that even a bad cold could kill her and reaching adulthood in her case wasn’t very likely. That made my time with Krystal all the more poignant and bittersweet, knowing that she was one of those fragile ones we may only have for a little while before they are completely ravaged by their disease and are gone.
We spent most of the morning playing with her dolls and coloring. Krystal was mad that I had to leave her to attend to my other patient, the five-week-old baby. She threw her dolls on the floor and demanded I come right back. I was surprised and slightly amused at her temper; it showed she still had spirit and that her disease had not fully conquered her. She was her own little person; she demonstrated robustly that she knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to show it. Good for her, I thought. Later, when I was able to come back, I took her to the playroom and drew picture after picture of any animal she wanted: tigers, monkeys, hippopotamuses, elephants, giraffes. Horses were her favorite. I drew her as an exotic princess riding a unicorn, ribbons trailing behind her in the wind. She colored each of those pictures delicately and neatly, staying within the lines as best she could, treating them like treasures.
We had a fun day coloring and making up stories about the pictures I had drawn and that she had colored, creating our own small and magical universe within the confines of those hospital playroom walls. She taught me a lot. I remembered what it was like to be young, hopeful, and yet afraid. Though Krystal was encumbered by the restrictions of her disease, through those hours that I was with her, she taught me about the beauty inherent in the freshness of the present and the grace each minute brings. Those of us who are healthy and robust sometimes forget, busied with the many responsibilities of our own lives, that each act can be a gift; each breath, a song celebrating our existence; each person, a treasure to behold. And though some of us may be granted more time, and others less, in this life, each moment is to be savored for the succulent fruit that it is–to be tasted and relished and devoured hungrily, with its sweet juices caressingly cascading down our chins.
LAURA MONAHAN, prior to becoming a nurse, worked as a construction welder (welding oil tanks and pressure vessels) and a power plant operator at an electrical utility, while attending college, where she graduated with highest honors. She attained an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate school of management, graduating in the top quarter, while working various management positions, the last one negotiating long term power contracts between utilities in the United States and Canada. She then quit working to raise her second child. During that time, she started a mural business, and built her own house. Now she is a graduate student at University of Illinois in Chicago, College of Nursing pursuing another dream and having lots of fun.