Their caregiving allowed me to wake up each day with strength for my family.

By Heather Gudenkauf
Updated May 11, 2017
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Nurse with child
Credit: FatCamera/Getty Images

Growing up in the 70s and 80s I loved watching medical shows. I’d scramble to get the best spot on the sofa before my siblings and settle in to watch M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere, Trapper John, M.D., and General Hospital. But the doctor and patient storylines didn’t grab my attention. The nurses did.

Nurses have had an immeasurable impact on my life throughout the years: The gentle nurse who held my hair back as an 8-year-old, when I became ill from anesthetic during an ear procedure; the OB nurse who held my face in her hands and encouraged me to stay focused during a particularly difficult labor and delivery; the two nurses, one of whom became my sister-in-law, who introduced me to my future husband; and my mother.

Growing up, my mom worked as a nurse in a doctor’s office and as a surgical nurse. She gathered cancer statistics for the University of Iowa and took care of elderly and terminally ill patients in nursing homes. She witnessed a baby’s first breath in the back of an ambulance, and she sat with family members when their loved one took one final breath. Even when she retired from nursing, my mom still continued to share her gifts. Along with my dad, she worked as a hospice volunteer, one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. She loved talking to the patients about their childhoods and their memories, allowing them to forget their pain and suffering even for just a few moments.

My parents had six children in 10 years. A home filled with six children was sure to have its share of sore throats, coughs, and fevers, and ours was no exception. Somehow, my mom made each of us feel extra special when someone was under the weather. I remember how she would make a bed for me on the couch in the television room, complete with fresh linens, a pillow, a cozy blanket, a heating pad, and a bucket nearby—just in case. I remember her soft, cool hand pressed against my hot forehead to check for fevers and the medicinal scent of the Vicks Vaporub that she applied to my chest. Even when I felt miserable, there was something wonderfully warm and comforting about knowing I was so well taken care of.

When I was 10, my dad’s parents came to stay with us while my grandpa was dying of cancer. The TV room was transformed into their bedroom, and my mother was there to help feed, bathe, and care for the man who gave life to the love of her life. My grandpa died peacefully in the same room where my siblings and I convalesced from our minor illnesses. In his final weeks my grandfather, after all the agonizing indignities that accompany lung cancer, got to experience the gentle care my mom always offered me and my siblings.

Years later, nurses would once again be there for me like my mother had. When my son Alex was 13, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a sneaky, aggressive type of bone cancer that typically strikes children and young adults. Over nine months, Alex underwent an intense chemotherapy protocol and an above-the-knee amputation. While I credit the entire medical team at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital for saving my son’s life—especially the oncologists and surgeons—it was with the nurses that my son and our family had the most personal, meaningful interactions.

They knew when it was okay to joke with my son and when it was best to leave him alone with his laptop and earbuds. One night back at home, Alex spiked a high fever and knowing that fevers in cancer patients could be deadly, we immediately made the 90-minute trip UIHC. The nurses on the frontline quickly suspected that Alex had developed a large blood clot in his arm. Within a few hours he was receiving life-saving blood thinners, antibiotics, and surgery.

Strangely, it was at the hospital that I slept the best during Alex’s nine months of treatment, and I know I owe this to the nurses. Alex often wanted his space and would pull the curtain around his bed, close his eyes, and let the chemo drip through the IV. I would settle into a chair that pulled out into a narrow bed and fall into a sleep so deep and restful that I don’t remember having dreams or nightmares. I often didn’t hear the nurses come into the room to change IVs and give medication. I didn’t have to worry about not being able to hear Alex call out to me, because I knew the nurses would wake me if need be. Thanks to them, I was able shut off the anxiety and dread that dogged me for just a little awhile, so in the morning I would wake up ready to try to be strong for my family.

When I recently looked back through Alex’s treatment binder filled with pages of medical records, discharge summaries, treatment protocols, and the meticulous logs kept over these nine months, I came across my mother’s familiar, elegant script scrawled on the back of Alex’s treatment plan. She had taken notes while my husband and I tried to listen as a nurse practitioner told us what to expect in the coming months: hair loss, mouth sores, possible scarring of heart tissue, and hearing loss, the numerous ways that cancer as well as the treatment was an imminent threat to Alex’s life. She and my father were there when Alex had his first biopsy, came to the hospital for each round of chemo, sat with us while the surgeons removed his leg, and helped care for our daughters, Annie and Grace, when we couldn’t be home.

Eight years later, Alex is cancer-free. He has grown into a thoughtful, personable young man with an adventurous spirit. My mom is still my go-to nurse. I call her whenever I have any medical questions: what could this ache or pain mean? Should I worry about this lump or that suspicious spot?

My mom continues to be the consummate caregiver. I watch her lovingly care for my dad as he faces significant health issues. I see the way she watches him carefully for any sign that something might be not quite right. And I see the way he looks at her. Like we all do to the nurses who touch our lives. With respect, with gratitude, with love.

Gudenkauf is the author of Not a Sound, out May 30th from Park Row Books.