So here’s to a beginning. I have been wanting to write for a while but haven’t been able to pull together the words as to all that I have been feeling and learning. It has been on my heart to share some of my experiences that have truly shaped me to be the person I am. It has pressed on me to share about some of my darkest times and how I was carried through. This blog is dedicated to the Lord, the very one who carries my world.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

HIV and a Terrible Mistake

Before I knew it, months had passed. Once cautiously guarded, I found myself begin to slowly relax into my role on the unit. I had some experience behind me now, having seen some things. Some things I will likely always remember. It’s amazing how patients come and stay for only a few days. And yet, their stories somehow live on in the minds of their caretakers long after they are gone.
The woman with advanced multiple sclerosis who could no longer move her arms and legs had a husband that came to see her and sit beside her three times per day.  He didn’t say much as he gazed at his bride covered in tubes and lines. Maybe it was because he knew she could no longer respond. Or maybe there just weren’t words to be said. But there was love there. And it was palpable and tragic all in the same beat.
The woman who had unknowingly contracted HIV from her husband who went on to develop AIDS and later AIDS dementia. She was grossly underweight and almost always requiring restraints of some kind due agitated behavior including but not limited to biting, hitting and scratching. She was surprisingly scrappy for such a small woman. I watched as staff members held her down to administer Haldol. The needle poked her emaciated arm, and I couldn’t help but feel like none of this was her fault. Her eyes were big and round and told the story of a life still fighting.
The woman who had been on respiratory precautions for possible tuberculosis. She had a bad attitude and made it clear very early on that she only wanted to be left alone. An hour passed, and a visitor came and left. I went to check on her only to find her locked in the bathroom. I knocked on the door, and she angrily told me to go away. I told her she needed to come out. As she made her way out, she began asking me about myself and my life. Had she had a sudden change of heart? Moments later I returned only to find her draped over her bed with a puddle of blood under her head, her body lifeless and purple gray. I called a code and CPR was started. But it was to no avail. We were to later find a syringe and a spoon tucked away under her clothes. She had been cooking heroine in the bathroom.
Each patient, it seemed, left an imprint of some kind on those hospital walls. The stories those walls could tell! And even more, indelible marks were being inscribed on the hearts and lives of those who looked after each patient.
Today would be no different.
I pulled the meds as I had so many times before from the med drawer and placed them next to my list of patients. I exhaled, pacing myself for the next four hours. We were short a nurse, and I had volunteered to cover. I wasn’t exactly known for coming in on my days off, but I knew they were desperate. “How bad could a four-hour shift be?” I thought to myself. I was relieved to see my list of patients didn’t appear terribly complicated.
I began to make my way around the unit, pushing my computer on wheels across the newly buffed floors. The shine put off by the floors did little to brighten the dated unit which always seemed lack luster. Nonetheless, I entered the room of each of my four patients to introduce myself.
It didn’t take long to notice my patient, admitted for observation post surgery had not yet received her flu vaccination. I inquired if she would like to receive it, and she agreed. Being an infectious disease floor, we didn’t tend to see post-operative patients. So, I gladly welcomed her to my assignment, knowing full well there was little to be done.
Moments later I donned my non-latex gloves, drawing up the vaccine from its vial into a syringe. I quickly glanced in her direction, noting big eyes intently watching me. I offered her a smile and brushed her arm with an alcohol wipe, explaining I would be injecting there. As the needle punctured her skin, she instantly shoved her arm away from me in one confusing sweep. I gasped, suddenly noting a burning feeling coming from my finger. I looked down to note the needle had punctured my glove and penetrated my skin. I stared at my thumb, which excreted a tiny bubble of blood, in disbelief. How could this happen? Why would she do that?
My face flushed in embarrassment as I exited her room, her, not even aware of what she had done. Nurses were known for being good at their jobs. There was a sense of pride that we carried. We held it together. We were smart. We did NOT mess up. This couldn’t be happening.
“Maybe I would keep this little incident to myself,” I thought as I tried to brush it off in my mind. She didn’t have much in the way of medical history. What was the harm?
A few racing moments passed, and I found myself blurting out what had happened to a fellow nurse who was more like a second mom to me. She, known for her sound judgment, recommended I file an incident report and perhaps have my blood drawn for good measure. She appeared so calm when I told her what had occurred. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
I made my way to the emergency department, which seemed a little extreme. Did I really need to be evaluated for something not too much larger than a papercut? Even still, it was nice to have a small break from my day.
To my surprise, I was sent right back to the unit. I was required to collect blood from the patient. This came as a shock, given my ED admission bracelet. I never dreamed I would be responsible for patient care while also being treated as a patient myself.  
As I reentered the unit, my heart began to race; and I didn’t know why. This was all routine procedure. There weren’t any red flags. Even still, my hands began to shake. I was relieved to note several nurses gather around me, one helping me get written consent for the blood test and another who volunteered to draw the patient’s blood.
Minutes later and more frazzled than I would have anticipated, I made my way back to the ED where I waited in a small white room for what felt like an unnecessarily long time. Finally, a PA entered in blue scrubs with papers in hand, asking me to describe what had happened. I shared briefly of my mishap, hoping to somehow still appear competent and perhaps even leave with some shred of dignity.
Little did I know what was coming.
His knee began to bounce up and down against the stool as I shared, and I half wondered if I were boring him. I watched his hands fidget as he looked up at me with unsettled eyes and plainly stated, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but her test came back positive for HIV”.
This was not happening.
There must have been an error.
That was not in her chart!
Terror filled my mind and for a moment, I paused, wondering if this were some sort of sick joke. I had heard stories of others on the unit getting stuck by needles in the remote past. I had even learned of a nurse that had gone on to convert to HIV.
Was that going to be my story?
I swallowed hard and quickly made my exit. I needed to get out of there. I felt as if I was being suffocated indoors. I needed to catch my breath. I needed to get a handle on what was happening. Minutes later I looked down to note a prescription for an antiviral medication in my hand, but I couldn’t recall how it had even gotten there.
Everything had gone blurry.
“God, where are you”?
The next few days were a whirlwind of confusion, frustration and nervous anticipation. I stared at the bottle of pills before me. I hated them. I hated what they represented. I already had too many pills to consume. And this wasn’t helping matters.
This wasn’t giving me confidence for a hopeful future.
Over the next few days I called out of work. How could I go back? I couldn’t bear the thought of looking patients in the eyes with the very diagnosis I was trying with all I could mentally and emotionally muster to evade. I had seen too much, and I knew it. I feared it would break me.
Would I be lying in one of those beds someday?
A quiet bitterness came over me in my frustration that I don’t even think I realized at that time. Seized with fear, I left little room for faith. Little room for God. Except to do what I wanted him to do. When I wanted him to do it.
And again, he just wasn’t cooperating.
I did my best to distract my mind over the next few weeks and quite possibly went into complete denial. I was relieved to complete my antivirals, but I knew I was far from being in the clear.
There were labs to be drawn. Several sets over the next year. I knew the first draw would be the most meaningful. And I held my breath in anticipation for the result. There I sat, glaring over the large wooden desk in the occupational health office, waiting to be seen. A few minutes passed, and a stern woman with stiff brown hair entered. I began tapping my foot as I watched her and her grey pantsuit sit down at her desk. This was taking too long. My palms were starting to sweat as I studied her face for cues. She, however, appeared in no rush.
A few minutes of terrifying silence passed. And she finally made eye contact.
“Negative”, she exclaimed.
I loudly exhaled, inwardly collapsing into a pool of welcome relief. I could breathe again. I knew this wouldn’t be the last blood draw. But I also knew it was the best indicator of what the others would also reveal.
I was free.
Or was I?
I left her office that day melancholy, and I couldn’t understand why. I had received a good report. Certainly I should be celebrating. But I didn’t. I wanted to retract, feeling wounded by the entire ordeal.
John 13:7 says, “You do not realize what I am doing, but later you will understand”.
Why had I been so quick to white knuckle my way through this whole process when I could have simply left it in his capable hands?
Was my faith so weak and my heart so hard that in fact I believed he could not really be trusted? Or was my faith just all lip service, puppeting what I had heard my entire life?
Oh to have heeded the wise words of Lamentations 3:25, 28, 31-32, which says, “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord…Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him…For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.”
Oh, to wait quietly for him. To sit in silence before the Lord.
He will show compassion.
But it would be a while before I learned such lessons. Really learned them. Deep down in my soul learned them.
Even so, he was extending compassion.