A Work Dream

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Everybody slept in my house. I snuck into my bed after spying on the brilliant and giant glowing full moon outside of my garage.

Then I had a dream. A work dream.

I was in a room with two girls. We played the board game, “Sorry.” The school aged girl bounced her giggly little toddler sister up and down, on and off of her lap. Her spunky high-ponytailed sister gladly interfered with our game. She grabbed the game pieces and moved them all over the board. Time and time again. I told the older girl how great of a big sister she was. She patiently moved the pieces back each time after her little sister rearranged them.

We played and talked. The little sister playfully pinched me and loved my overreaction. “Owwwww.” It didn’t hurt.

Then, I paused.

I remembered why the big sister, still so little and innocent staring up at me, had come to the hospital.

I needed to tell the big sister something important. Something that was a little hard to say.

I shared with her how I get the chance to work with all sorts of brave kids in the hospital. I told her about some kids that need stitches or others that break their arms and need a cast. I told her that a lot of kids, like her, have to do really hard things in the hospital. Things that hurt or make kids feel uncomfortable. Weird things like peeing in a cup. Or getting a bit of their blood taken from their veins through a tiny tube. She listened intently and nodded as I talked. She paid close attention as she focused her big kind eyes right on mine. 

Then, I exhaled.

I told her that me and my friends that work at the hospital believe that some of the bravest kids we ever meet carry around a kind of hurt that happened but doesn’t show up on the outside of their skin. Hurt that was caused when a grown up did something awful. Things a grown up should never have done. I talked about how it’s really hard and worrisome to carry a secret around. As a grown up and especially as a kid. I talked about how a grown up is supposed to protect, love and take care of kids and keep them safe, not hurt them.

I told her that we were all extremely proud of her for telling that a grown up had hurt her. And then I told her that she was one of the bravest. And I said it with the kind of sincerity that brought tears to my eyes and put a big lump in my throat. The kind that makes it a little hard to talk. I think I said it because I truly meant it. And because it’s true. 

And then I woke up to go to the bathroom.

I looked out the window at the dark after midnight sky. The moon had moved west. It was no longer big, bright and beautiful.

Something had changed since I had fallen asleep.

It seemed sad, angry, frustrated and disappointed. It seemed like it longed to hide underneath a lump of dark grey clouds.

Maybe that was just me.

The dream was too real. If not for the little girl’s beauty and resilience, it would have been a nightmare.

Or the kind of dream you hope to never have again. Ever.

 

Full Moon

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There are thunderstorms. A lot of them happen right here in the midwest. We hear the sirens. Take cover. We anxiously or routinely wait it out. Feeling the thunder, winds and rain beat down.

There are winterstorms. We occasionally get a few of these in the midwest too. Crazy amounts of snow and ice dumped in a short amount of time. Everything quietly blanketed in bright white. Snow shoveling galore.

And then, there is a whole different kind of storm. It’s a kind that even the most accurate meterologist cannot predict. You can’t take cover. You have to work through it despite the damage it may cause.

These are the shitstorms.

They tend to happen most of the time at work. Especially if you work in the hospital setting. You can casually clock into work and have no clue what the next twelve hours will bring. You may have a feeling, but there are often no signs outside of the hospital to warn you of the impending doom. The heinous stressful atmosphere inside. Somedays, you would be willing to put your paycheck on the fact that it will be a full moon tonight. You walk outside at the end of your shift and look up. Case in point. Hello there, you big bright moon.

There’s no announcement. No watch. No warnings. No code. And no denying the full force of the shitstorm touching down inside of the walls of the place you don’t like today. Not at all. You actually decided you hate it. You hate it’s sole existence. It doesn’t matter how many brightly colored murals and amusing elevator animals decorate it’s many walls. It’s an easy place to hate on days like today. When you’re caught smack dab in the eye of a shitstorm. Stuck with some of the biggest hearted, most self-sacrificing people you know. And also some of the most vulnerable and dependent children and families. You wish you could protect them all. And if every work day was like today, you would just take cover and never come out. Ever. You would clock out for the last time. It really doesn’t make any kind of sense that you can love a place that you hate so much. And still come back. Over and over. Again. And again.

But you will come back tomorrow.

Today you’ve had many opportunities to master the art of compartmentalizing. Sadly, you’ve created several new compartments. You’re strangely equipped and fully capable of walking into one happy alive room then quickly switching gears as you close the door and walk the halls to slowly open the door to an eerily silent room. It’s what you have to do. Keep going. Don’t feel that feeling.

Especially that one feeling.

Chest throbbing emptiness smothered in disbelief and surreal sadness.

How could you not go home and immediately search for another job? Like tonight. Maybe stocking the shelves somewhere. Serving kids somewhere else. Some place where nobody cries. Some place where no one screams. Or bleeds. Or dies. A place where horrible accidents and non-accidents don’t happen. A place. Any place. Somewhere else.

You’re still close to happy-tear-crying grateful. Because you’re in good company. You’re constantly rescued by the familiarity and love for the people who you have briefly talked with today. Your coworkers. Held captive in the storm with you. You’ve gotten to make eye contact, subtle faces back and forth. Eyes that could say a million words. And express a hundred different emotions. In just one glance. It’s solidarity at it’s finest. Strength, love, comraderie and hope shoved down, yet not buried beneath the darkness. You will find it later. You have to. It’s still there. Always.

It can be hard to break past the debris, the damage, the misplaced, scattered, torn and the forever lost. The forever changed. The anger. The sadness. Disbelief. Disgust. Pain. The unexplainable.

You have the intermittent overthinking moments. Wresting with the overwhelming feeling of trying to lift the invisible gargantuan weight of another’s pain. And knowing that you can only do so much. Or so little. You can’t reveal that sometimes it’s too difficult to carry. Not here. Not yet. Switch gears again. Focus on stopping the heavy incessant thoughts of your own world outside of these walls.

There’s a constant struggle with hospital work. It’s internal. A good versus evil tug-of-war going on inside of your heart. And in your head. Throughout the days. And nights. A brain overfilled with thoughts. A heart bursting with emotions. Temporarily tied up. It’s bulging at the seams. When you drive home, you will began to untangle the knotted twine capturing the feelings that have not been felt yet. It often gets messier before you get the knots out. You know you should try to feel the feelings now. While you’re in control. Outside of the walls. While everyone sleeps.

You survived. Again. Most will not know tomorrow what you’ve endured these past two shifts. Because you will do what you’ve learned to do. Cope. Compartmentalize. Keep on keeping on. And hope for tomorrow. Then wake up to a new day with a post-shitstorm perspective. Grateful and readily available to engage in the life-filled moments with those you love the most. Because you’re resilient. You’re a survivor. And for today, the shitstorm is over.

Work Spades

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I could tell you a million sad stories about a million hard things that happen to kids. And their families. Well, maybe not a million. But eleven years worth. I could tell you about horrible, awful things. Worse than you can imagine. Worse than you’ve seen on TV. It would alter your mood. And change the vibe of your get-together, if I’m honest. I know better. I won’t do that. I will listen to you talk of work stories. And I will let you insert hard things for me to hear like “you have such a fun job” or “I could never work in a children’s hospital” or “I don’t know how you do it.”

It really would not be fair to follow up your bad day at work story with one of mine. That’s because when it comes to sad stories, I’ve got a hand full of spades. Every single time. Pretty soon you just won’t want to play with me anymore. You won’t ask about work. It will be the elephant in the room, the one in the corner making herself a drink. Don’t worry, its okay. I get it. I do understand. It’s hard for me, too, walking into the hospital on some gorgeous happy sunny days. You never know what you’re walking into. You never know how hard your hands will be squeezed. Or how many times your heart will be flipped upside down. How many screams or cries you will hear. Or how hard it will be to hold back the tears building a sad castle inside. You never know how many times you will need to go to the bathroom. Or how many times you will just have to keep holding it. Or if you will eat anything other than a donut and cheez-its. It’s an unpredictable environment, to say the least.

But, it’s not all ace of spades sad trumping stories. Or none of us would do it. There are victorious, fist pumping small miracles happening. All around. I could also tell you of some of the most inspiring stories. The times where I’ve witnessed love in it’s purest, most raw and unconditional form. When I’ve held back both happy and sad tears as I left the room to go grab a warm blanket. Or a glass of water for a parent. I can attempt to describe to you the thrill of working on a team where each member excels in different roles but most have mutual respect and adoration for each other. And every member has the same goal: to help make things better in both gigantic life-saving ways and the seemingly small, dignity reviving ways. We all show up and hope to help kids and families overcome. We aspire to make the world inside a kid’s hospital better.

If I could see that you truly wanted to listen, I would highlight all the joys and all of the many pains. The frustrations. And the necessary humor. Definitely the life-changing moments. The many heroes and heroines. You would hear all about the kids who proudly shouted “I did it!” after completing something really scary and painful. And excruciatingly hard. I wouldn’t forget to tell you of the time where I witnessed a teenage brother sit on the bed and comfort his younger sister in the most inspiring, compassionate way. A way that reminded me of my big brother. Or the time where I stood beside a father who held on so tightly to his daughter’s head and hand, never letting go, as she screamed in pain and begged him to hold her. I think she was begging him to make it stop. To rescue her. But he couldn’t do that, so he did what he could. He held onto her through the hurt.

I would need to tell you of the innocent, gigantic-hearted children who say things like, “I want to stay at your house” or “do you want to go to Worlds of Fun with us?” And of the painful, heartbreaking realizations that tumble out of kids’ mouths like… “He was just a kid. And he died.” I would have to boast about the littlest interpreters who carry the weight of speaking English at the doctor and Spanish at home. Who speak for their mother or father, all the while trying to play and just be a kid. Just a few weeks ago, one sweet seven year old boy fumbled and told me, “I got lost in a word.” How perfect. I knew exactly what he meant.

I get lost in words too. Especially when I try to explain what working in a hospital is like. Most people have a hard time listening. So I stop talking. I recognize that maybe you just wanted to hear something less heavy. More happy. Lighthearted.

Unfortunately, I think I can usually trump any sad story you tell. That doesn’t mean I should. Or that I want to. I usually won’t. I try to hide what I hold in my hands. And in my heart. Unless I know that you carry a hand of spades too. I will not unravel in front of you. I will hold my cards tightly. To my chest. You will never know of the faces, the sounds, the room number. The smells. The horror. The memory triggers. I know I can’t tell you about this. If I told you about it, you may not understand. You would wonder how I can talk without sobbing. You would think I’m some sort of sick human being. You may think I just don’t feel anymore. Or that I’m insensitive, maybe calloused. Burnt out perhaps. You may say something like “I just don’t know how you do it…..how you don’t cry.” You forgot to ask me the question. You assumed that this work doesn’t affect me. Maybe not like you imagine it would affect you. You forgot to ask,

“Do you ever cry?”

Because, if you asked this, I would answer, “Yes.” Exhale. “Yes, I do cry.” Not in front of you though. Not right here. Not right now.

I cry as I turn my back to you, quick tears that never exit. I cry in the halls and bathrooms at work. Bent over using the cheapest toilet paper or paper towels to wipe them away. Or in my office. I cry at home in my kitchen into a dish towel or on the tread mill into my t-shirt. I cry in my bedroom into my pillow when my kids are sleeping or getting ready for school. Just because I can stand in this room or tell a story without crying doesn’t mean I don’t feel the utter sense of loss and pain and unfairness that you felt upon first imagining it. I’m only human. I’m actually a lot like you.

We all have different strengths. And different capacities. Limits. Gifts. Yet, we all have weaknesses. Vulnerabilities. Every single last one of us. There is a completely different language that takes years and years to recognize and learn. A language we will never fully understand. And the more time you spend around this unspoken language, the more deeply you feel. In happy or sad moments. It’s the language of hurt. The language of pain. The language of unexpected life-altering circumstances. It’s too difficult to try and understand in a moment. In a conversation. In a day. It’s much too complicated. It often feels foreign, uncomfortable. You just can’t fathom the all-encompassing, overwhelming and sometimes heart-stopping beautiful feelings that accompany holding these cards. So, I will nod. Put on my best poker face. And most likely I will never let you truly know what it feels like to work in a children’s hospital. It’s easier for me to just hold my cards closely, tightly, right up next to my beating heart.