Since I qualified as a nurse (four and a half years ago I’ve found that my friends can be separated into two distinct groups; those who are medical and those who aren’t.
In any sort of gathering, as soon as the medics get together we tend to start talking shop. We try not to, knowing that things that we can quite happily discuss over meals tends to turn others green but we can’t help ourselves. It’s just so rare to have the chance to talk to people who understand what our jobs are like.
We all have partners and friends who are more than willing to let us talk but quite often talking leaves them uncomfortable and unsure how to respond; on several occasions I’ve accidentally reduced friends to tears.
Time after time the same sentiment always makes an appearance.
“I couldn’t do your job.”
I usually respond by saying that I couldn’t do their job (the idea of being a teacher petrifies me) or that everyone is suited to different jobs or society wouldn’t function. Having written that down I realise that it could be interpreted as incredibly patronising but I mean what I say.
The thing is, there are often times when I don’t know how I do my job.
I’ve just learned to hide it.
Being a neonatal nurse is hard, one of the hardest things I’ve done and will probably ever do.
It is challenging, emotional, frightening, rewarding and wonderful and sometimes so terribly sad.
I see children at the very beginning of their lives and at the end and I’m honored to do so. I watch parents grow in confidence; from their very first cuddle and nappy change as they learn about their baby.
I see joy and sorrow, heart break and elation; love in all it’s different forms.
One thing this job is not is easy but if I wanted an easy life I would have found a different career years ago.
And yet the things that I’ve seen and heard and had to do.
The number of times I’ve sobbed in my car before I’ve driven home, only to find the tears starting again as I drive.
The nights I’ve sat on the sofa, unable to go to bed because I can’t let go of the day; replaying the shift over and over again in my mind.
I’ve held tiny, newborn babies in their first seconds and minutes of life while they have harsh plastic tubes inserted into the airways so that the ventilator can do the job that their pitifully under-developed lungs cannot.
I’ve given chest compressions when their hearts have stopped beating, breathing for them when they can no longer breathe for themselves, willing them to live when I know they can’t but hoping for a miracle.
So many times I’ve prayed for a miracle but so rarely is one given.
I’ve taken blood, inserted tubes and assisted with so many procedures that I know are distressing and painful, not just for the baby but for the parents who have to stand by and watch. I gently suggest that perhaps they might want to wait in the sitting room instead and that I’ll let them know as soon as we’ve finished but there are always those who want to stay.
Every day I walk the line between trying to protect them from their baby’s pain without taking away their right to be a parent. I know that if Squidge was ill or in pain then he would need me and I would do everything to be there for him. I also know that standing and watching whilst your baby cries in pain from a medical procedure is something that no parent needs to experience.
I have looked at babies and just though why? Why do we put them through days and weeks and sometimes months of pain and suffering with just the vaguest of hopes that we can save them? Why are these children born with life-threatening conditions or just far too soon? Why are any children born like this?
I’ve sat beside parents, my heart aching because I know that what they’re going to be told is going to smash their lives beyond all recognition.
I’ve held the hands of broken mothers and helpless fathers. I’ve shed tears with them and for them, for their child and at the downright injustice of it all.
I’ve been there at the very end; trying to steady my shaking hands and hide the tremor in my voice because what they need now is for me to be strong, to give them strength when they feel that their own has deserted them.
It takes so much from you, being strong for others; giving them pieces of my heart and slices of my soul to try and sustain them as their world shatters into tiny pieces. Giving them whatever it takes to get through the next minute, the next hour, the next day without their child.
Knowing that I can’t make it right for them.
Knowing that one day I will run out of pieces of myself to give.
I’ve listened to their screams and sobs of anguish; my head pounding and my skin crawling with the downright wrongness of it all. The sounds ring in my ears and creeping down my spine long after the parents themselves have fallen silent. It doesn’t matter how many years I work, I will never get used to the fact that babies die.
Sometimes I wake in the early hours of the morning, knowing that something is dreadfully wrong but not being able to remember what. Only when I’m fully conscious do I realise that I’ve been dreaming about work, sometimes about things that happened months or years ago but that I will never forget.
I carry the babies that have been lost with me, etched into my memory. Sometimes I realise that it’s been weeks since I last about them and their families but I never forget them. Before I started working as a nurse I didn’t realise how important memories would be and how much of a responsibility I would have to carry them.
For some parents, apart from a few small keepsakes and photographs, memories are all they have to tell the world that their child lived.
I still remember the first time I heard a mother scream when she was told that there was nothing more we could do to save her daughter. I recall exactly what I was doing, which baby I was looking after and where in the room we were.
I can see the bright primary colours of the cot bars.
The mother’s headscarf had slipped down, showing her long dark hair.
The nursery nurse kneeling beside her, talking to her in their shared language.
I remember everything.
I do wonder if the day will come when I can’t be a neonatal nurse; when I’ll have given everything I have to give and I’ll be so full of memories that I can’t carry any more.
I don’t think it will.
It’s my job.