By Erika Fehrenbach Prell
In the face of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, it is safe to say that the appreciation for the entire medical and scientific community has never been higher. There is one profession among this community that defines the entire health care experience, and that is the nurse. Being a nurse myself, I might be a little biased, but hear me out. All of us have had a health care experience of one kind or the other, whether it was a routine check up at a clinic or sitting at the bedside in a hospital. Go back to that time, and think about this question: who made the difference in your experience?
While all the cogs in the medical wheel are crucial to a patient’s outcome from the janitor to the physician and everyone in between, I’m willing to bet that it was your interaction with the nursing team that defined your experience. It’s the nurse that stays at the bedside keeping a watchful eye on changes in the patient’s medical condition and intervening appropriately. The nurse that does the small things to make you feel seen, from back rubs to ice chips to realizing you are celebrating a life milestone in the hospital like a birthday or anniversary by making a “mocktail” of cranberry juice and 7UP. It’s the nurses that know your stories and have met your families. It’s the nurses that pick up the pieces after bad news has been delivered and celebrate the loudest for your victories. The list goes on and on. Nurses are more than the face of health care; they are the lifeblood, the very soul, of health care.
While a Google search will tout the reasons to go into the nursing profession with answers like job security, flexible schedule, and competitive salary, ask any nurse why they chose to go into nursing and I sincerely doubt that is what their answer will be. Their answer often will stem around a personal experience they had with a nurse during their own or someone they love’s health care experience. And, that is exactly what made me want to join their ranks.
You see, I never intended to become a nurse. Oh, no, no, no. I was going to be a doctor. No offense to my physician colleagues, but what does a kindergartener know when they pick what they want to be when they grow up? Seriously, I really liked my doctor when I answered the question at age 6, and it stuck after that. It was my go-to answer. So much so that I never really questioned it; it just became what I was going to do.
As the universe tends to do if we pay attention, a series of life events happened during my sophomore year in college that altered my trajectory. It started at the beginning of summer break when my dad’s best friend, Bob, had a heart attack. He was resuscitated and transported to the hospital. My dad and I went to visit three days after Bob's cardiac arrest. While we were there, the medical team came in. I went to the waiting room with Bob's young nephew so everyone present could talk without the rambunctious interjections of a toddler. What seemed like an eternity later, my dad came to find me and tell me the news; Bob's scans showed irreversible brain injury and would be taken off life support later that day.
The rest of the visit was very hazy. I recall that the room had a peaceful quality, despite the devastating news. A chaplain came by to speak to Leah and the girls to offer support as well as make plans to deliver last rights later in the day. A tray appeared with sandwiches and juice. Tissues were always within reach. Needs were met as if by magic. While I hope no one has to go through this series of events, it was more peaceful and calm than I could have imagined.
Fast forward to the end of the summer, my father was fortunately diagnosed with severe coronary artery disease and scheduled for emergency, life-saving cardiac surgery. (I always need to say a thank you to Bob for saving my dad’s life on this one.) I remember going from my first day of classes sophomore year to the hospital to sit with my mom and little brother while my dad was in surgery. The surgeon met with my mom, brother, and I to tell us that my dad’s surgery was over and went well. A short time later, my dad’s nurse brought us into the ICU and started guiding all of us through what to expect in the upcoming hours and days. While it was scary seeing my dad hooked up to the same machines Bob had been on a few months earlier, the mood was different. I had all the confidence that he was going to be okay; it was hard not to when the nurse kept telling us how great he was doing. I never doubted her, and she was right.
Maybe it was the stress and shock of these two experiences, or maybe it was because I was a naive nineteen year old, but I didn’t fully appreciate or understand the value of the nurses until my final close encounter with health care starting in October that same dreadful sophomore year. My uncle became critically ill due to complications from alcoholism. Over the next nearly four months, he was hospitalized. The details are an entire story on itself and for, possibly, another time. It was during this extensive hospitalization that I fully understood and saw the nurses.
It was like one of those lightbulb-turned-on-ah-ha moments! As I sat at my uncle’s bedside doing homework so my mom or aunt could take a needed break, I saw them - the nurses. I saw them coordinate all the care teams. I saw them administer medications and write down vitals. I saw them appear when alarms were sounding as well as when they knew alarms were coming. I saw them reposition, give back rubs, rub lotion on dry skin, swab parched mouths, wipe up bodily fluids - doing the things patients need when they can’t do it themselves with grace, kindness, and empathy. I saw them not only tend to my uncle but also to the needs of the family. I saw a million small things that resulted in a huge difference. I realized that the unseen angel that brought peace when Bob’s end of life came and brought confidence and reassurance during my dad’s surgical recovery came in the form of the nurses.
That’s when my heart became decided, and I answered the Universe’s call. I stepped into one of my purposes, changed majors one more time (okay, the fourth time but who’s counting?), and applied for nursing school. I did not really know what I was getting into; because, let’s be real, being a nurse is hard on all levels - physically, mentally, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. I just knew that it felt right; it felt like the way to make a difference. It felt like a way to pay it forward; to take the experience I had at some of the scariest, saddest, most emotionally charged times of my life and guide someone else through them, show them the way.
It’s challenging to sum up what it’s like to be a nurse; it’s one of those professions that embeds itself into who you are and is not just what you do. The journey to becoming a nurse is a life-changing rollercoaster - experiencing the darkest, most vulnerable moments one minute and soaring high on the sweetest victory the next, literally within the span of one eight-hour shift. I am forever grateful that I took that unexpected turn on my journey; just as certain as I am that I was made to be a nurse, I am also certain that being a nurse molded me to who I am today.
It is with sincere gratitude that Jackie and I express our heartfelt thanks to all the medical professionals making a difference in the lives of their patients today, and every day.
Erika Fehrenbach Prell is passionate about inspiring and educating, others on their path to complete wellness-mind,body, and soul. This desire led Erika to the helping profession of nursing, and she obtained her Master's Degree as a Nurse Practitioner in 2007. Erika specialized in cardiac surgery, largely influenced by her personal experience with heart disease. While she loved working with this population, her heart's desire has always been to impact lives on a larger scale and from a proactive, not reactive, place. The universe answered when her path crossed with Jackie and SoulShine was born. Erika finally feels she is walking in her purpose and is excited for this journey to unfold.