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OPINION: Nurses care for the sick, comfort those in need

When my dad died in the Chamberlain hospital in the summer of 1968, the only person in the room with him was Nancy.

My mom and some of my siblings had been there but had stepped away. I was outside in the hallway, trying to work up the courage to return to the overheated room where the shell of the strongest man I'd ever known lay dying of cancer. Nancy, my spouse of just one year, was with Henry Woster in his last moments.

She talked, held his hand and shared his final time of suffering. A year out of nursing school, she knew instinctively how to do what nurses do — care for the sick, comfort those in need, make sure those about to die don't make the passage alone.

This is National Nurses Week, May 6-12, a reminder of the importance of nurses not only in formal health care settings but also in everyday life. Long ago I lost track of the number of times Nancy has used her nursing temperament and skills to treat or comfort a family member, a friend or friend's child or a random person in need of care. When something bad happens, many of us hesitate, looking to see if someone will respond. Nancy responds. That's the way nurses are.

I read a quote attributed to someone named Val Saintsbury. I don't know who that is, but I like this: "Nurses dispense comfort, compassion and caring, without even a prescription.''

I have the utmost respect for doctors. They work like crazy to get where they are, and they perform under great pressure, always expected to be at the top of their game. After they do the surgery or make rounds, though, the patient's care is left to the nurses on duty that shift. They are expected to carry out the orders the doctor has written, as well as refill the water cup, rearrange the sheets, fluff the pillows, take the vitals and dispense the meds at the proper time, all the while listening to what the patient says, and doesn't say.

Back when Nancy was in college, one of her roommates worked a ward for children with cancer. I never will forget the time Rosie came home crying her heart out because a favorite young boy had died on her shift. I thought how impossible it would be to return to that place. She dried her tears, caught a few hours of sleep and returned to the ward for her next shift, smiling for the children who still needed her.

When Nancy had surgery this spring in Denver, our daughter-in-law, a doctor in a neurology practice, made sure that every visit to her mother-in-law's bedside included pizza or cookies shared with the nursing staff. She knows her own importance in the health care continuum. She also understands the value of nurses to the best outcomes for patients.

Nurses are at their best when patients are at their worst. Sometimes, I'm sure, a nurse struggles to give the best when a patient isn't, you know, really sick but is really vocal and demanding about needs. I still remember the TV series, "ER,'' with nurse Carol Hathaway. When she entered the room of a patient with minor ills but major complaints, the man asked if the injection she was about to give would hurt. Smiling, she said, "Only if I want it to.''

For years, Nancy worked for the state Health Department and was one of the nurses giving flu shots. State workers used to ask me if she was working a specific clinic, because their kids liked the fact that it didn't hurt when she gave their shots. I always was proud of that, even though I had nothing to do with it.

I found this quote somewhere recently: "Nurses are there when the last breath is taken, and nurses are there when the first breath is taken. Although it is more enjoyable to celebrate the birth, it is just as important to comfort in death.''

That's what my wife was doing in my dad's hospital room that evening so many years ago. I'll always be grateful for that.