It was after the Super Bowl. I was sitting on my bed, watching Glee and reading status updates on Facebook when I decided to check my work email. I usually check work email on Sunday nights, just so I know what to expect when I come in on Monday.
I saw an email from our nurse manager with the title of “P’s Services”. I was distracted as I clicked on the email, turning my head to watch the Thriller/Heads Will Roll mashup and then glancing back to my laptop screen.
“As most of you have heard by now, P passed away unexpectedly this weekend,” was how the email began.
I quite literally gasped, as I realized that my friend and colleague P was dead.
P started working as a nurse in my ICU years before I was born. About the time I was graduating from high school, P transitioned from the ICU to work in the new family resource center at the hospital. The Center provides housing for families from far away, parking assistance for inpatient families who can’t afford it, computers and internet so families can stay connected, and a library of books, movies, and games to keep patients and their families entertained during lengthy stays. They also help to coordinate a parent-to-parent support network, and run two annual events that the hospital hosts for bereaved families – events that P took the lead in coordinating.
I don’t remember the first time I met P. I think perhaps the person whose job I was taking over made a point of introducing us. “P used to work on our unit – she’s one of us. Go to her anytime you need anything – she’ll take care of you.” I was told.
Indeed. When I needed the go-ahead to reserve a room for a family that couldn’t make it home, P was there. When a family needed parking assistance and was only a few hundred dollars over-income from qualifying, P approved them so they wouldn’t have to go one day without the assistance they needed. I knew P had my back, and would often go to the Center to ask a favor. She’d see me coming and say, “You again! Uh oh – what do YOU want?!” with a twinkle in her eye, and I’d plead my case.
P had an incredible combination of compassion, enthusiasm, and determination that drew me (and many others) to her. She greeted everyone with a wave and a smile, and always made time to talk. Of all aspects of her job, the two annual bereavement events were the ones about which she was most passionate, and I was fortunate enough to serve on the planning committees for both events.
But it was our nightly check-ins that really grew our friendship. I’d leave work each night at 6:30, and P would work the front desk at the Center until 7. To leave the building after exiting my office, I had to walk by the Center. I’d look for P on my way out each night, and if she was there I’d drop in and chat for a while.
It was through these conversations that I learned more about P’s life outside of the hospital, and that she learned more about mine. She shared stories about her family and I told her stories about bad dates and the perils of single life. And when I was having a rough day, I’d go to her, She’d ask how I was doing, and I’d shrug and give her a look that said, “If I talk about how hard this work is right now, I’ll probably start crying”. And she’d give me a look back that would say, “I understand, and I’m here for you if you need anything.” And then she’d make me laugh with a story about families breaking the rules in the sleep space.
It has been over twelve years since my world was turned upside-down when my friend Christine died suddenly. She was just a few days shy of 20 years old. One minute she was singing with us and laughing, and the next, she was gone.
I had forgotten what it felt like… this strange, surreal feeling as though I’m in a dream, but with regular horrible, gut-wrenching realizations that I am not. That a person I have loved and cared about is suddenly and unexpectedly gone, and I am left going through the motions and trying to make sense of a life ended too soon.
I deal with death on a regular basis at work, but P’s passing has hit me hard. In an ICU, I feel prepared for death. I know that it is part of what happens in such a critical setting, and that it is my job to support the families and help prepare them for that which they can never truly be prepared. The larger hospital setting outside the ICU is my safe zone. It’s where I go to escape the intensity of the ICU. The Center was my safe zone. P was my safe zone.
Once again, I find my world turned upside-down. The Center is where I have always gone to take a break from the intensity of my work. Now it is a reminder of a dear friend who is gone and a trigger for the deep pain of a sudden and unexpected loss.
My heart breaks for P’s daughter who is my age, her husband who is not much younger than my father, her parents who have already grieved the loss of another child, and her co-workers in the Center who must be reminded every day of her absence by an empty chair at a desk full of task lists not yet completed.
My heart breaks for all of those people, and it also breaks for me. P was my colleague, my mentor, and my friend. Last week, we laughed and swapped stories of our experiences working in the ICU. Tonight I left my office at 6:30 as usual, and passed the Center on my way out. I willed myself not to turn my head, not to expect to see P smiling and waving me in to talk. But my brain still can’t believe she’s gone, and so I glanced in. And then I turned away as tears pricked my eyes and a lump rose in my throat.
I miss her so much already.
Colleagues from the NICU and the Center wrote some words about P that were shared with the hospital staff today when her passing was publicly announced:
Today we grieve the loss of our dear friend and colleague. P was loved by all who knew her. She extended her warmth, knowledge, caring and support to patients, families, staff and all who were blessed to know her.
P had a long list of admirable attributes. She was the "core" of the hospital; thoughtful, kind, compassionate, and endearing. She was a mentor to all who worked with her regardless of age, position, and experience. She was never easily flustered, and intimately understood the depth and chaos of working with families in crisis. She had a refreshing sense of humor, including the ability to laugh at herself. Her humility balanced with invaluable wisdom made her an innate mentor for colleagues at all levels who would frequently seek out her advice, support and her tidbits of invaluable guidance. Caring for others sustained P and we've all had the privilege of benefiting from her warmth and love.
Each one of us has our unique memories of P and our individual beliefs about where she may be now, looking out upon us. The one thing we're certain of is that she would embrace us and tell us not to worry for her. Her stressors are now a thing of the past. She would definitely want us to carry on in our work in caring for each other and the patients and families whom we serve. That is something that we all must do, in honor of our dearly loved and respected colleague.
P, I miss you so much already. None of this makes sense to me, but I trust that somehow this is what was supposed to happen, even if I may never know why. Thank you for your support, guidance, humor, and caring over the past 2 1/2 years. There is no doubt in my mind that I am a better person for having known you. Rest in peace, my friend.