By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, email@example.com
Nurse Tiffany Smith breathes in and out slowly as she starts to read a poem she has just written about working in the COVID ICU during the winter surge.
“Breathe. Up and down I watch your chest move, listening to the inhale and exhale of the machine.”
“Breathe. I remind myself as I feel suffocated under layers of filters, fabric and rubber. Not nearly as suffocated as you must feel, I think, as I assess your numerous drains and tubes, checking to make sure they’re all doing their jobs as well as I hope to do mine for you.”
Her voice is calm as she records herself, but her emotions are raw. She swallows back tears and steadies her gaze as she reads the words that poured out of her heart onto the pages of her journal only hours earlier.
“Squeeze, I ask, and watch for the slightest movement of your fingers around mine. I hope you know there’s a human here with you. I hope you can feel the warmth and love in my gloved touch while all the while hoping you do not have any recollection or cognition of this time.”
“Squeeze. I remind myself as I prepare your medications and your bath supplies. Squeeze out every bit of emotional, mental and physical strength I have. I feel empty, but I can’t be. You need me to keep going and I need you to keep going as well.”
Smith is a Riley Hospital for Children resource nurse who was redeployed to IU Health Methodist Hospital last year to help care for COVID-positive patients. She and her Riley colleagues had talked about the emotional impact of their work during the pandemic, and on a Monday morning in March of this year, she decided to put it down on paper.
“Blink. Open and close your eyes so that I may see into the soul of the person I care so deeply for. What is your family like? What is your career? Do you have any pets? What are your hobbies? Do you have a favorite music?”
“Blink. I blink away tears as I speak to your family on the phone and then hold the tablet so you can FaceTime with them. Do you know they would be here if they could? Do you know as my gloved hand brushes your hair, bathes you and cares for you that I’m really just an extension of those who love you the most in this world?”
The eight-year nurse, who lives on a five-acre horse farm with her husband, Elliott, and leads medical mission trips to Haiti, woke up a few weeks ago with a heaviness on her heart, as she recalled the patients she and her nursing family had lost during their time at Methodist.
“It was more death than I’ve been exposed to in my entire career. They were heavy on my mind, and I wanted to write something to honor them.”
The poem took her only 20 minutes to scrawl into her leather-bound journal. She recorded it and shared it with a few nurse friends, then posted it on Facebook after clearing it with her manager.
“Turn. Turn to one side, then the other every two hours so you don’t get a bedsore. I can’t imagine how fatiguing it would be to be bothered every two hours as you try to rest and heal. I explain why and I hope you hear me.”
“Turn. I turn the page of your Bible that sits on your bedside table as I read a chapter to you. What book is your favorite? What brings you the most peace? I hope I’ve selected well.”
As a pediatric medical-surgical nurse by training, Smith said walking into an adult hospital to care for ICU patients wasn’t easy, but she doesn’t shy away from challenges. And her mission was the same.
“I wanted to do best by my patients,” she said. “I have so much praise and admiration for the team at Methodist because they were so accommodating to us. I was never scared of getting COVID, but I was very much aware that I don’t know what I don’t know.”
While she felt privileged to care for her adult patients, she said returning to Riley last month was like “going home again.”
“It was kind of like that drink of cold water you need when you’re really thirsty.”
“Dream. I hope as you lay here you dream of the happiest and most beautiful moments. I hope the beeping, alarming and poking fades away into birdsong, music and loving embraces.”
“Dream. I also dreamed last night between my shifts. I dream of you and caring for you. I hear your beeping and alarming and hope that I’m taking that away from your dreams. I feel like I haven’t slept.”
For three months, Smith worked at Methodist, taking turns staying with patients who were critically ill and could not have any family members present.
“I would ask their family members things to help me get to know them. I sang songs. I read to them. It’s very sacred to be one of the last people that someone makes a connection with, and because of what was going on and the tragedy of it all, that moment wasn’t with their family,” she explains as she fights to keep her composure.
“It’s an effort to acknowledge their life and the sacredness of being there for that part of it.”
“Rest. I hope you get some good, peaceful rest until I come in again. I hope I gave you just enough blankets and that your pillows are propped just right.”
“Rest. I sigh and look out your door to the rest of the unit as I take off the fabric, filters and rubber. I take one more loving, exhausted glance at you as I step out of your room and walk over to your neighbor’s.”
Smith, who took speech in high school and has always loved writing, said she wrote “Breathe” initially for her inner circle of friends and family as a way to give voice to the pain she and other nurses experienced on behalf of their patients.
It is her way of speaking to those who have lost loved ones, offering a glimpse into COVID units around the world.
And if she could talk to them directly?
“I would tell them that the nurses and respiratory therapists and techs and everyone tried their hardest to embody the love that they felt for their family member. One of the hardest things about death is our fear that a person is going to be forgotten. I want to reassure them that they have left an impact and a legacy on me.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org