Recovering from Tragedy and Surgery

Submitted by Catherine Stevens RN, BSN

Tags: PACU support surgery tragedy

Recovering from Tragedy and Surgery

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Being in a hospital having surgery can be a trying time for any individual, but to many, the loss of a dear friend as well would be inconceivable for most. Yet, enduring both simultaneously is hard to conceive. In the nursing field, tragic situations offer a silver lining that can lend a piece of wisdom that will enable us to grow as caregivers. This wisdom was bestowed upon me by a recent patient I treated. I was able to learn something from her all the while I was taking care of her. The power of perspective was instrumental in helping her through a stressful and vulnerable time. While her complex social situation created a need to use resources that she had not previously relied on, her life-altering circumstances highlighted the resilient outlook that helped her healing process.

KG was a single woman in her 60s that lived in a very “tight nit” trailer community. Though she lived in a very poor area, all the surrounding neighbors were very helpful and caring for her in her senior years of life. In fact, if not for the daily help of neighbors, she might have needed to reside in an assisted living facility. She was faced with a triad of morbid obesity, diabetes, and wound healing complications. Her scheduled procedure for abdominal surgery would increase with complexity due to her co- morbidities. The stress of the procedure would continue to challenge her healing process. While the medical-surgical concerns were a priority in the pre-op phase of care, her psychosocial concerns were also an added priority in the post-op phase of care.

It just so happened that the night before the surgery her dear neighbor, that provided so much support, suddenly coded and died at the hospital before KG was scheduled to have her procedure. Before I even met KG I was already empathizing with her due to her heartbreaking situation. I was concerned that during the post-op phase of care, her emotional liability could affect her recovery and potentially impede her healing process. In preparing to receive this patient I was reeling with thoughts about what I might say to her to acknowledge her loss while trying to recover her from anesthesia. Upon meeting her I identified her name ID and asked her to state her name and date of birth. At that moment I realized KG was going to have a birthday the very next day. As she become more awake and recovered from the anesthesia, her true personality began to shine. She was so joyful! She made light of her medical condition by making jokes and making all the nurses around her laugh. When we started discussing her recent loss she would only tell the fondest memories she had of her dear friend. She did not dwell on the fact that she had just lost a major piece of her support system. Though her nursing acuity required a high level of care, her personality made the work enjoyable and she attracted many other nurses that were not directly responsible for her care. I completed her PACU phase of care and reported off to the floor nurse that would take over her care. Though her short PACU phase of care was complete I was plagued with what would become of her after her hospital stay.

When I returned to my unit we all discussed how this patient enlightened our day and continued to laugh about the many jokes she told. It was then that we decided we should return the sentiment that she brought upon us. The next day we gathered as a group and brought her a balloon, and a stuffed animal and we went to visit her on her birthday. We walked into the room singing “Happy Birthday.” Her face lit up and she began to cry. We visited for a while and offered a listening ear and a few good laughs. I was happy to hear that she was open to entering a rehabilitation facility or a long-term care facility. Social work and Chaplin services had been counseling her every day on a discharge plan of care. Her continued resiliency and positive outlook were allowing her to remain open to many other resources she had never needed to rely on.

Not only did we as nurses walk away with a smile on our faces and warmth in our hearts but so did KG. It was so fulfilling to be able to return some of the joy this patient brought to our day. It was so satisfying to offer more than pain medication and a warm blanket in the recovery of a surgical patient. Sometimes laughter can be the best medicine.