Real Stories From Real Caregivers

Five local nurses share touching moments from their time on the floor

COMPILED BY JEN KENT

When I was 3 years old, my mother passed away from uterine cancer. I had become her built-in sidekick. I went to her doctor appointments, chemo treatments, (and) radiation, and I rubbed her bald head while she napped on the couch. My dad always talked about how amazing the nurses were and how they were always there to comfort my mom and family. My dad put nurses on a pedestal, and I knew that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I think initially I wanted to be a nurse to help people, then to find out what my mom struggled through, then to understand what happened and why, and now to help others who are experiencing what cancer can do to a family.

Mindy Bartczak on her mom’s lap, with her siblings and father

My last clinical rotation in nursing school was at Froedtert. I was caring for a breast cancer patient and was doing hourly checks, so I got to know her very well. I asked her what the hardest part of her journey was, and she stated, “Telling my grandkids that I was going to lose my hair, I couldn’t play with them as much, and they would have to wash their hands around me.” I asked her how she did that, and she said she had a book. She told me the name of the book was “Someone I Love Has Cancer.” Time stopped in that moment. I thought my jaw hit the floor, because my mom wrote that book. She wrote that book for my siblings and me before she passed away, so we could understand what cancer was in terms that made sense to us. I told the patient all about the book, and she shared more of her journey with me.

When I walked out of the room and closed the door behind me, I got goose bumps. At that moment I felt as though my mom was telling me that I am where I belong. I belong here at Froedtert, where she got her treatment, and I was born to be a nurse. — Mindy Bartczak, RN, Emergency Department at Froedtert Hospital

While at the nurses’ station, I heard a patient’s wife sobbing. Her young husband was dying of a brain tumor, and she was overwhelmed. As she passed me, I felt compelled to speak. I gently shared the loss of my husband to a brain tumor 20 years earlier. I listened as she poured out her fears. When she asked how I had survived, I told her my story and saw peace settle over her. I will never forget her. She is a reason my career is not just a job. It is a mission of caring, hope and healing. — Susan Kern, RN, ProHealth AngelsGrace Hospice

Every day, nurses deliver care that eases patients’ minds during challenging times, and they sometimes create moments patients and their families will never forget.

Michelle, a registered nurse at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, recently helped create a moment for a woman named Nancy, who was suffering from liver failure. Nancy was from out of state and had very few visitors, which resulted in tremendous sadness and loneliness.

Michelle noticed that Nancy’s nail polish continued to chip away as her length of stay increased, and she decided to do something about it. During her lunch break, she went to the hospital’s gift shop to buy Nancy nail polish. She returned to the unit and decided to give her a manicure.

Michelle learned that Nancy loved Taylor Swift music, and throughout her future shifts, she would play several songs for Nancy and also taught her a dance to Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Other nurses would join in, and smiles were infectious across the unit.

Unfortunately, Nancy was not able to receive a liver transplant before she passed away, but weeks after her passing, her son called and shared how much it meant to his mom that Michelle and the nurses sang and danced with her while she was so sick. He only wished that someone had a video of her doing the dance.

Without Michelle taking the time to get to know her patients, none of this would have been possible.

Nurses like Michelle bring these moments to patients every day, and for that, we’re all grateful for their work and commitment to others. — Mary Beth Kingston, RN, executive vice president and chief nursing officer, Aurora Health Care

It was a tough moment when our nursing team told a mother that her critically injured son was not far enough along in his recovery to be part of our coma recovery program.

The mother continued to call us with updates, and 30 days later, he was ready for our program. Her ongoing hope and optimism inspired us all. Within weeks, her son moved on from our program to the next care level.

When the mother called to update me on her son’s progress, which included that he was taking steps and regaining some memory, I was reminded of how blessed I am to be surrounded by skilled and dedicated nurses, doctors and therapists who change lives in such moving ways. To be part of that circle of care is the greatest gift. — Linda Kroll, RN and admission liaison nurse, Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Institute, part of Ascension

The first time I met Chloe was shortly after she arrived at the cardiac intensive care unit (CICU). I walked into the room to help my co-worker, and the little girl in the crib looked up at me with big, curious eyes. My co-worker stuck a cotton swab deeply into her nose, a routine test for viral infections, and tears streamed down Chloe’s cheeks. She was so weak she didn’t even attempt to push us away. I softly stroked her head and gazed into her eyes. I was transfixed for a moment, not realizing I was lingering, until I heard the nurse say, “That’s all” — my cue to leave.

I wasn’t assigned to care for Chloe until months later. She was living in the CICU, tethered to an IV pole and relying on a continuous infusion of medication to keep her alive, waiting for a new heart. That morning, as I knelt on the floor gently bathing her, Chloe’s mother asked if I would be one of her primary nurses. I spent my 12-hour workdays caring for her in the following months. It was an emotional journey as I watched Chloe receive a donor heart after months of waiting. Again, stroking her head as she lay there while a ventilator and numerous medications helped to keep her alive after the operation.

Shortly after, her twin sister, who also needed a heart transplant, took the room next door. I cared for these two sweet babies as they fought for their lives with a tenacity they will never be able to fully appreciate in themselves. My mornings with the twins were often quiet, but when their parents arrived after work I found myself almost as excited as the squealing girls in my arms. Between sharing the joys of strolling around the unit with IV poles in tow, and the uncertainty when Chloe was at her sickest, they began to feel like family.

It was with joy and immense sadness that I helped pack up their belongings and watched them drive away on a warm summer morning — a family heading home together for the first time in six months. In that moment I couldn’t stop the tears that streamed down my own cheeks. The girls received the life-saving gift of new hearts and had taken a piece of mine too. — Lindsey McDonald, RN and pediatric nurse, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin


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