A Mom, and Her Donna

Donna was the youngest patient I recall being on 6 West.  The Respiratory and Renal unit no longer exists.  Funny how things disappear once I leave...  Six-West was a nightmare of a floor.  I called it The Roach Motel… people checked-in but they didn’t check-out without everything being tagged and put into bags, first.  The official nursing specialty of the 36-bed unit was chronic respiratory and renal disorders.  Lungs and kidneys.  Breathing and urinating.  Most patients were dialysis dependent, and very sick.  We had four ventilator beds, 2 isolation rooms and if I had to guess the average stay for our typical patient, I would say it was a month.  Each time The Regulars would return, recovery would always be a long monotonous process of all sorts of treatments done around the clock.  (There was no rest on 6W! )   Some Regulars came several times a year.  It was very easy to love and hate that floor, simply because the names on our room assignment board would give us a quick-glance what the upcoming shift was going to be like.  No two shifts were ever the same, and the worst was seeing a cleared space on that board, waiting for its new name.

No one could have prepared us for Donna and her parents.

Donna was young, pretty and got infected with the AIDS virus from her boyfriend.

We never met him.  He had already died.

We learned to care for and love Donna, because each one of us saw how easily a simple mistake is never without severe consequences.  NO ONE deserves to go through all that she and her parents went through.  Perhaps what was so heartbreaking and difficult was watching her two parents watch their daughter slowly fade to the cruel, bitter, darkness only death can claim it’s long suffering friend. Not a day went by without us seeing either parent by her side.  Most times it was her mom who kept her company.  Only on the days that she herself was sick did her husband stay with Donna, alone.  I worked 12p-2a, so the routine was Mom would sit alone for a few hours with her daughter… she’d go home for a few hours… then return with Dad so both could kiss their only-girl good night.  On Good Days, they left feeling optimistic.  Months dragged, and optimism became relative to her bleak situation.  Towards the end, no one knew how to say good-night, because we weren’t sure if it would be the last-time “see you tomorrow” could… or should be said.  The "final end" dragged-on for weeks.

Some Nurses were better than others, regarding Donna’s care.  She was in multi-system failure, so she required a lot of technical skill.  Her ventilator was attached to her trach, so keeping the hole in her neck clean and free from infection was a priority.  Her feeding tube went directly into her stomach, so the insertion site on the abdomen required special care, as well.  Most new students and graduates were very intimidated by the vent, so only the most confident/capable in suctioning a person’s lungs were assigned to her room.  Of course, confidence in skill wasn’t enough, reactive time and skill had to be swift because those suctioning procedures had to be done at a moment’s notice, and in front of a scared and nervous mom.  If the alarm was sounding-off, it meant Donna couldn’t breathe.  Considering the number of repeated episodes of pneumonia she had, it was amazing how few knew how to be confident and comfortable around her poor parents. 

What I liked most about Donna’s parents was their ability to recognize who could be trusted with their daughter and who couldn’t.  I will never forget how proud and honored I felt the first time Donna’s Mom bent-over to her little girl to say, “Donna!  Look!  It’s our favorite nurse… Kerry.  Oh Kerry, we’ve been waiting for you all day… can you help us out here, it seems like her bandages around the tube are falling apart.”

Sure enough, the wound dressings were well past their scheduled time to be changed.  That never bothered me as much as finding near-empty IV fluid bags or gastric-tube feedings gone ignored.  I enjoyed that time with Donna’s Mom… she’d tell me stories about Donna, and if we were lucky, Donna would respond to our conversations with her eyes or a hand movement. 

I sit here and I read that sentence:  “if we were lucky, Donna would respond to our conversation with her eyes or a hand movement.”  How sad... I still sit and sob at the memory... her mother's face... how it would light-up with such excitement to the slightest movement her daughter would make.  Movement meant she was alive, possibly ready to stir herself awake.  How agonizing it was when Donna didn't move or make a sound.  Those were the most painful moments of all... the silent wait, for Nothing.  Sometimes all I had to offer was a tear-filled smile, just to show this mom I felt her loss.  God knows, I still feel crushing pain The Loss "nothing" brings a waiting and expectant heart.

When Donna’s mother was around, she never… not ONCE, missed a change in her daughter's movement.  I found this so fascinating; it was like an external pregnancy, and I would spend as much time as I could just to sit and talk and watch how one responded to the other.  It was amazing to see how only a Mother could see something no one else could, unless that person was watching just as closely as the Mom.  I was one of those people... I am one of those people who understands how desperate a person gets, WANTING to will the lifeless body to move.  Interesting how death and pregnancy can do that to a girl.

"MOVE DAMN IT!  MOOOOOOVE! Something... anything... please?"

Somehow, we can intellectually understand wishing and willing is not going to make much of a difference in certain helpless situations, but it doesn't stop the desperate effort and need to keep on trying to prevent an impending and dreaded loss.  Where there is life, there's hope, and that hope should never be taken away.  For some, hope is all that remains in a given situation.

Donna's Mom was SO strong… SO devoted… and SO protective of her baby.  Watching her cry over Donna was a thing of beauty to me.   I felt very close to Donna’s mom, in a very respectful Outsider way. 

However, it was not Donna or her mother that made that family so special to me… it was Donna’s Dad who affected me the most.  If he was with his wife, and they needed help, I would make every effort to help them, even if Donna was not my assigned patient that shift.  Why?  There is nothing worse than seeing a man panic in fear, so if I saw that he was upset and looking around, I would make sure help was quickly found.  I think women tend to be much stronger in these stressful situations.  Even if a mother is crying, that sort of frustrated pain and grief is somewhat expected, as it relates to the pain her child must be feeling.  I see that as a very maternal nature, and it takes tremendous strength and character to drop everything for a child.  Men typically stand and watch, in silent disbelief, as frustrated anger and feelings of helplessness build to the point of explosion.  I would expect Donna's Dad to get mad and snappy, but he never did.  He was quiet and calm, and very sad looking.  Watching this grown man made me weak because his face revealed the grief he had over losing his little girl.  He was losing her to an illness that could have been prevented.  His face showed just how little he could have done to change the facts and the awful outcome.  The situation was made worse because both parents knew their daughter was dying a slow and painful death because a boy had unprotected sex with her, and he never told her he was HIV+.

I saw Donna's Dad's quiet sadness a bit odd.  [Where was his anger?]  At one point I asked him if he was having any problems with anger or frustration outside of the hospital  (my role as a nurse, made it my responsibility to contact social services if a bereavement specialist was necessary for any family members needing support measures outside the hospital-setting.)  I remember him shrugging my conversation off, and his wife started to say "He's the "the strong one" in public, but at home, he has his share of outburts."   Expressing his rage was not a problem, from what she was telling me.  I was relieved to hear that, because it was only natural to feel the need to explode.  They both were under so much long-term stress.  Mrs D explained to me that she and her husband made a promise to one another, "For Donna's sake, we won't let her see us That Way... we're here for her... not us."  I was humbled by that.  For the life of me, I could not identify with parents like that.  They were unreal to me. 

Just as I was about to leave this one particular day, I paused to adjust some things on the shelf, and I heard Donna's Dad ask very softly,  "Why did he have to choose my baby girl?"

I looked at him. 

He looked at me...

... and the world came to a screeching halt. 

Do I breathe?

Do I talk? 

I just STOOD.

I shook my head slowly, not knowing what else to do.

I can't remember whose tears came first.  I remember the sound of this strong man cry a very loud sob.

Fortunately, his wife was there, and knew when to go to her husband.   When I knew he was safe in her arms, I left the room, and made sure the door was closed.  It was a scene and sound I will never forget.

I stood there in the corridor not knowing what to do... I couldn't breathe.  Noise was everywhere, I was needed in other rooms, with other patients, with other problems, but I was falling apart.  If I moved, I would collapse.  So I stood, hoping no one noticed me wiping my face and swallowing my own choking sobs.  Fortunately I worked with a friend who knew the family well, because she was also one of The Other Nurses Donna's parents preferred.  I told her, "Donna's Dad is crying"

Next thing I knew I was in a locked bathroom, on the floor, sobbing.  My gut was clenching and burning, making me gag and heave until I could finally vomit all that dared to be inside me.  The violent purge calmed me down enough to regain my composure.  My buddy knocked on the door to see if I was alright, and told me she would still cover my patients if I needed more time.  I returned to the floor a few minutes later with fresh make-up applied, and red swollen eyes.  Without a word, I resumed my duties and thanked my friend for covering my district while I was off the floor.  I was lucky to have a friend working with me who understood what that image did to me.  However, that day changed me... I don't think I was ever the same with my nursing-school buddies after that.  Within a few years I lost all contact with them. 

For me, Donna's Dad was a hero.  He saw fault and greed in a boy’s selfish need for sex, and seeing a man's anger towards that behavior brought me such a sense of sweet relief.  I needed to experience and witness one man's rage towards another male's behavior.  This dad expressed all I felt, hidden inside, and he exposed it with few words... he used raw emotion instead.  Donna’s Dad taught me it’s never acceptable to use sex as a tool or a weapon in a relationship.  One act of intercourse should not cost a person a life sentence that ended in death.

Sex is meant to bring two lives together, not break families apart.

Donna's story was a lesson and a reminder to a nursing staff that was still young and eager to date:   guys with an erection don’t care who or what they touch, as long as it’s sexually gratifying to the penis.  We were all so horrified just how quickly and easily innocence could be taken away, all because a guy would  lie...say anything, (even "I love you"),  just to get laid.  Of course most of us were in our early 20's, and we didn't know all the facts behind the relationship she had with her boyfriend... all we knew was Donna was our age, she had sex, and she was dying a miserable death because of it. 

I vowed to myself I would marry the first man who asked me.  I wanted Out.  I didn't want to die, I wanted to live, and learn how to love and trust.  I wanted to do everything Donna couldn't... because she didn't survive the test of life.

As a mom, I realize not all sex acts are bad or done out of spite.  Experimentation is how things get learned.  Respect, privacy and honesty are the key factors to a person’s most intimate relationships.   I strongly believe all sex acts need to start with a deep and heavy conversation.

Donna’s life had profound meaning to those she never got the chance to meet.  Her parents taught a group of young nurses, there ARE parents out there who will never leave their daughter’s side, no matter how bad the situation is or will become.  Donna’s mother was the first to know when her daughter's life began...and she was the first to kiss her baby Good Bye, knowing she would never spend another day sitting by her sleeping child again.

There was so much beauty in this pain... it was enough to keep me strong enough to try new life, myself.  Donna's family taught me how unconditional love between a parent and child can be, and even though their time shared with me was filled with so much sadness, the purity and goodness of their love and devotion simply took my breath away. 

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