patient stories

On Creativity

Ever the traveler, I have to go someplace about every 3 months. With a tight budget and graduate school on the horizon, I didn’t have much money to spare. I decided to make a short roadtrip to visit friends and family in western Wisconsin and the Twin Cities early August.

I had the pleasure of visiting my high school friend in Eau Claire, the college town of said friend, my parents, sister, and brother-in-law. We made no major plans and did whatever seemed like enjoyable. We visited the farmer’s market, went to yoga in the park, shopped at an amazing local hand-made shop called Tangled Up In Hue, dined at a restaurant she wanted to try out, got drinks on a rooftop, and – my favorite – made it to Eau Claire’s annual Chalkfest that happened to be going on that weekend.

Hundreds of artists of all ages overtook Eau Claire’s campus, creating a tile of their best artwork under the blazing hot sun. Each artist was literally pouring sweat into their work. It was amazing to see what each one of these individuals created with the same materials: chalk!

Sure, there were duplicate themes such as Finding Dory (adorable!), but I was blown away by the unique creation of each artist. I’m at a place in my spiritual life where I greatly needed a reminder of creativity, of God’s creativity. That day, He provided me just the reminder I needed of how He can make something beautiful of out nothing exponentially better than those incredible artists at Chalkfest did.

In my line of work as a nurse in the Emergency Department, it can be incredibly difficult to believe in miracles. Whether my daily despair comes from a young man with a new spinal cord injury, a middle-aged mother with cancer with newfound metastases in her brain, a homeless man with more problems than we could ever solve, or an elderly woman whose family just won’t let her go, it can be incredibly difficult to truly believe that God can create good out of an awful situation. I see these awful situations, this suffering, this pain, this frustration every day at work. I know from my previous experiences that people don’t always get better.  It can be near impossible to believe in miracles let alone good outcomes.

Over the summer, I’ve been training the in trauma room of my Level 1 hospital Emergency Department. People in that room are sick, like need-something-now-or-I-might-die sick. As refreshing as it was to take care of legitimately ill people over I’ve-had-a-cold-and-I-don’t-know-how-viruses-work people, the glamour of the room quickly faded. I had no idea how physically, emotionally, and spiritually demanding that room would be. And 3 months in that room has me seriously doubting that miracles can happen.

But thank God He likes to prove me wrong.

After a particularly hard week in the trauma room with multiple deaths and life-changing disabilities, I was at Mass with two friends when a young speaker came to the podium for a small testimony to encourage the congregation to donate to a local food pantry. He gave a short talk about how he was addicted to drugs, close to death in the ICU, and with the help of the pantry and God was able to turn his life around: 5 months sober, significant weight loss, and newfound purpose.

It was refreshing to hear about someone turning their life around, a success story, a win. But staring directly the destructive face of trauma blinded my eyes once again.

It was another particularly hard week. Life-changing disabilities, hard conversations, and in particular, the sickest trauma I’d ever seen. She was paged out as a gunshot wound to the neck, with a laryngeal airway mask (LMA) in place giving her oxygen and an unobtainable blood pressure. Unbeknownst to us, prior to coming through my ER’s doors, she needed 3 rounds of CPR with 3 shocks and had an intraosseous (IO) device burrowed into her leg. She was sick, like need-something-now-or-I-will-certainly-die sick.

My co-workers and I worked furiously. We placed IVs wherever we could find them, placed a better airway, pounded 4 units of blood, whisked her off to CT scan, and checked on her at every available moment during the scan as her pressure continued to get lower. We found she had a bleed in her jugular and carotid arteries, the vessels suppling blood from the heart to the head. It was survivable but an increasingly precarious situation. When her head came out of the CT scanner, we found her head was sitting in a literal pool of blood.

We worked all the more furiously while interventional radiology (IR) prepared for her. We gave a medication called tranexamic acid (TXA) to slow further bleeding. We pounded 8 more units of blood with platelets and plasma into every open port possible, placing more lines. We questioned if we lost her pulses twice, as her blood pressure was so low it was nearly impossible to tell. We thought her heart might have flipped into a lethal rhythm, but thankfully the monitor’s alarm was just due to some equipment falling off. After over 40 minutes of doing everything possible to maintain any semblance of bodily homeostasis given the circumstances, we whisked her up to IR. As my co-workers and I took off our bloodied gowns, the IR team worked furiously behind us. It was surreal walking away, something she might never be able to do.

After a day like that, it’s hard to believe in good outcomes and almost impossible to believe in miracles. If she survives, she has countless days in the hospital ahead of her, countless surgeries to fix her neck and face, countless hours of rehabilitation to restore her cognitive function from the time of low blood flow, and countless nights of continuing to fear for her life in the hospital.

I just sat in my pew at church on Sunday, tears silently falling down my face, begging God, “Lord, I just need a win.”

Providence would have it that a young speaker came to the podium for a small testimony to encourage the congregation to donate to a local food pantry. The same young man gave that congregation a short talk about how he was addicted to drugs, close to death in the ICU, and with the help of the pantry and God was able to turn his life around.

As I sat in the pew, his familiar words comforting my aching heart, I remembered a trauma I took care of as a new nurse at a different Level I hospital. I was working on an inpatient stepdown trauma unit that day we got an ICU transfer who had been there for nearly a month. He had almost lost his life in the trauma bay after a traumatic leg amputation. Rumor had it our trauma surgeon cracked his chest open, and ER nurses had to literally squeeze blood products into him. He was sick, like need-close-monitoring-or-I-might-die sick, but stable enough for our 2-hour checks. His amputated leg was covered in the black foam and had multiple wound vacuums taking out excessive drainage to allow his underlying skin to heal. He was definitely sick, but he was alive, stable, and awake.

As the days on our stepdown unit passed, he was progressing nicely. His wound needed the occasionally revision, and some days his pain was horrible, but he was getting overall better. One day, I vividly remember ER nurses coming up to see him, gaping at him in pure wonderment. As he continued to get better, I asked the senior trauma resident if he could transfer to our general care area on the unit. The resident marveled, “I suppose so, but he’s our traumatic amputation.” Clearly, he had seen him sicker.

And I prayed and continue to pray that my gun shot wound to the neck might be one day discussed in the same manner. As as I prayed, half listening to the same testimony I had heard earlier, I realized something: destruction takes seconds; creativity takes time.

The horrible trauma that let my gun shot wound and my traumatic amputation to come into their respective ERs on the brink of death took less than a minute collectively. Healing took a year for him, and God-willing will take a substantial amount of time for her.

Just as trauma destroys in seconds while healing takes significantly longer, rain would destroy in seconds the work Chalkfest artists took hours to create. No matter what’s at stake, destruction takes seconds; creativity takes time.

In the midst of sorrow, pain, and other destruction, our hearts ache for a quick answer. It’s difficult sitting in our suffering. Too, we live in a world of instant gratification. If it takes under a day for Amazon to deliver my big screen TV, why should I have to wait for healing? Why can’t it be now? As I explain repeatedly to my patients who don’t understand that having a cold is not a medical emergency, healing takes time.

Healing is creative. The immune system needs to learn how to fight a virus. The cardiovascular system needs to learn how to adjust to changes in fluid levels. The skin needs to heat up to kill bacteria. The body needs time to be creative, adapt, and change in order to heal.

Spiritual healing is also creative. We need to grieve and allow all of our emotions to come to the surface. Grieving is complex and can take an extraordinary amount of time. We need to admit our weakness, our uncertainty, our pain. We need time to adapt to our changed circumstances in order to heal.

Healing – like all creativity – takes time.

Some days, in that time Our Creator needs to work, we might sit down, cry, and just beg for a sign, a comfort, a win. It may not come like we want it, but we cannot allow our hearts to be blinded to the miracles that surround us. I could have brushed aside that testimony the second time around, but the second time he spoke, his message was like a resounding gong, saying, you don’t know the ending to every story.

I don’t know the ending to many of my patients’ stories. It’s been one of the hardest parts of transitioning from inpatient nursing to ED nursing. All I know is that many of my traumas over the summer have died, and it’s very hard for me to believe this one will make it.

It’s very likely my gun shot wound won’t survive. Her prayed for miracle may never come like we expect. But that doesn’t mean a miracle isn’t taking place.

We look for radical healings, like the ones we read and hear about in the Bible. But even the Gospel tells us about that the expected healing did not always come. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you realize that Jesus did not always heal all the sick.

What!? Yes He did! He’s God! Yes, He is, but nope, He did not heal all the sick.

As we hear in Mark 6:5 and Matthew 13:58Jesus did not always heal all the sick. The writers contribute the lack of healing to the people’s lack of faith, but the various lives of saints quickly tell us that even the ones with great faith are not always healed. Having great faith is not a free pass to get out of suffering. Just look at the apostles. All but one were martyred!

Living in the 21st century, our likelihood of being martyred is quite low. We’re much more likely to develop (and eventually die of) a chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease, chronic respiratory issues, and Alzheimer’s. Being young and fairly healthy, I am used to being sick and being completely cured. You probably are too. Most people expect to be sick, suffer, and recover.

But one day, that won’t happen anymore. One day, we’ll be diagnosed with a chronic disease and never be completely well again. One day, our bad days will be more frequent than our good ones. One day, we will die. If we pray to be well, to be healed, and to live, does that mean that our prayer wasn’t answered?

No. As I’ve heard, God answers all prayers with yes, not yet, and I have something better

Our prayers for healing are always heard; they are just not always answered like we expect. And when they are not answered like we expect, it can be hard to believe that our new reality is indeed better than the one we pictured.

What if the miracle for my gun shot wound patient is that she will live just long enough for her family to come, mend their wounds, forgive one another, and say good-bye? What if the miracle for us when we are sick with a chronic illness is not that we live forever but that we lived years and years longer than we could have 100 years ago? What if the miracle has nothing to do with the body and everything with the soul?

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”But he did not heal all the sick. His healings were signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover.

CCC 1505

The most radical healing, the biggest victory, the most creative moment was Jesus’s victory over sin through His death on a cross. The fact that we can be forgiven is more radical than the fact that our bodies can be healed. And so even when it appears that all is lost, no victory is to be had, and everything is ruined, we must remember that God is creative and has already shown us just how creative He can be by His death and subsequent resurrection.

I mean, really, can you even picture something more creative than that!? Sure, Jesus spoiled the ending by telling people repeatedly He was going to suffer, die, and rise again, but come on! Resurrection! That’s pretty mind blowing right there, especially when you really start diving into the science (and mystery) behind the Shroud of Turin, the cloth that is said to have been wrapped around Jesus when He was dead in the tomb.

When we’re living our Good Fridays, when we’re in shrouded in doubt on our Holy Saturdays, when we’re in the throws of suffering, it can be near impossible to believe in resurrection let alone a miracle let alone a good outcome.  Yet as a sign hangs in my apartment as a little daily reminder, with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

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So, even though I can count the patient wins I’ve had over the summer on one hand and cannot even recall all the moments where I’ve been overwhelmed on all my fingers and toes, I read with faith the words of Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9

God is more creative than I’ll ever know, with His plans being greater than the ones I can imagine. I don’t know what how everything will turn out, including my sick, sick trauma, but I know my Father. He is good, He is loving, and He suffers with me.

I know I cannot do much, but I am here to serve. As Mother Teresa once said, “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.” I don’t know how that letter is going to turn out, but I am happy to be whatever letter in whatever place God wants.

And for your viewing pleasure, some AMAZING photos from Chalkfest:

 

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