I was raised by a registered nurse. My mother, Loretta Tawney, worked at Huntington Hospital and then Stony Brook University Hospital, pulling overnight shifts and coming home in time to send me and my brother off to school. She’d sleep during the day and be ready when we returned home before heading out again in the evening. This went on for 23 years. She never complained. No matter how drained she was, she always had enough energy to be our mom.
I’d overhear her on the phone talking with friends about her work life, the animated co-workers, the complexities of health care vs. corporate America, and the carousel of patients. And whenever I’d try to fake sickness to stay home from school, I couldn’t fool her.
During holiday seasons, she had to work on Christmas, Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, and sometimes Thanksgiving. This dampened my spirit because my mom was the most festive person in our family. Before Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Valentine’s Day and even Presidents Day, she decorated the inside and outside of our house in Commack. Give the woman a reason to spread cheer and she’d have cookies baking in the oven, a holiday-themed movie in the VCR, and music playing throughout our house. But when it was time to go to work, there was no room for debate.
“Why do you have to work on this day of all days?” I’d ask in frustration.
“They need me, too, honey,” she’d respond, compassion in her tone.
I selfishly wanted her at home. I didn’t care about a bunch of ailing strangers. I rarely visited my mom at work, but when I did, I saw a different side. Standing alongside her on that hospital floor, I observed her readiness to shift her focus and spring into action to adjust an IV drip or check a patient’s medication. Her fellow nurses possessed these same qualities.
I noticed that patients and their families rarely acknowledged a nurse’s presence. They saved their respect for the commanding doctors in white coats who assessed each bedridden subject. Nurses simply fell into the background.
Recently, as my grandmother, Elsie Simonetti, became ill and I found myself spending more time in hospitals, I observed closely the artistry of nurses — how they administered medication, checked heart, blood and oxygen levels, made sure patients were comfortable. They lifted patients in and out of bed and helped them to the bathroom. Beyond their duties, the nurses displayed consideration and sympathy for each patient. One nurse held my grandmother’s hand and said, “Don’t worry, honey, you’re doing just fine. I’m here for you.” Another day, I walked into my grandmother’s room to see a nurse brushing her hair.
What I saw helped me to understand why my mother coveted her occupation. And when we were at the hospital for her own mother, I saw my mother struggle to give up some control. I watched as she talked shop with each nurse who walked into my grandmother’s room. She knew the protocol and language. The familiarity of the profession seemed to comfort her.
She learned to let the nurses care for her mother as she had done for countless patients. A week later, my grandmother was transferred to hospice and died shortly after. We were devastated.
I never did go back and thank those nurses properly for all of their care. But I did walk away with a new appreciation of my mother.
Reader Raj Tawney lives in Port Washington.