Holy Family nurses chronicle job's joys, sorrows and inspirations

January 15, 2012


It was after a nurses' banquet several years ago that Marcia Donlon struck upon the concept: Nurses have great stories, and they love to share them with each other.

During that banquet, organizers had invited the assembled nurses from Holy Family Memorial in Manitowoc, Wis., to talk about the moments that had meaning for them as nurses. "Some stories were funny, some were sad, some were touching," said Donlon, who is a vice president at the medical center and its chief nursing officer. The session "was a hit, people couldn't get enough, they wanted to hear more stories, but we had to bring it to a halt" because of time constraints.

Donlon said, "It stuck with me: What if we had a book to share these stories?"

So, about a year ago, Donlon wrote up a story of her own, to get the ball rolling.

She recalled in her page-long narrative how, as a newly minted nurse in 1975, she was asked to help care for a 16-year-old who had fractured his neck and was a new quadriplegic. "I had never seen someone so close to my own age have such a tragic accident that would affect his life forever," Donlon recalled in her account. "What would I say to him? Besides that, I knew little about how to care for such a patient. I was scared."

Donlon went on to recall in the story how she helped treat the teen during his eight months in rehab and how she forged a relationship over time with him and his family — a relationship they have maintained through cards, letters and visits. "I've realized how the patient and his family and me have been changed by our experiences and relationship over the years," she wrote. " Believing, loving and trusting are main themes that help us survive, change and grow into better human beings."

Donlon circulated her story to other nurses at Holy Family and encouraged them to contribute their own narratives. She and her assistant shared the incoming stories as colleagues submitted them, and they asked others to write up their stories. Donlon and her assistant now compile the submissions into a three-ring binder called "The Many Names, Faces and Lives of Nursing at HFM."

The binder contains 20 stories, and it is growing.

In her story, contributor Angie Popp, a nurse in the Cancer Care Center, recalled an evening shift during which one of her patients, a 50-something woman with lung cancer, was agitated and restless. The woman's family members had joined her in the room, and knew her death was imminent. Popp could feel the tension in the room as the woman paced around and then returned to bed, struggling to breathe.

"I sat on the edge of the bed and held her up and began to hum," Popp remembered. "I do not know what I hummed, no song I knew. But I hummed. Her husband sat on the other side of the bed and held her from that side. And her daughter sat beside me and held her mother's hands. We held her and we hummed. And then she stopped fighting. She died in our arms peacefully.

"This experience will never leave me," Popp wrote. "There was divine intervention to let me help ease this patient into dying."

Another nurse, Clinical Specialist Melissa Hamachek, reflected on her work with an HIV-positive five-year-old who came to the pediatric unit for frequent infusions. Both of the boy's parents had died from HIV, and a relative was raising him. "His bright, sunny outlook despite being orphaned at a young age and having a disease considered a death sentence at the time always made me smile," Hamachek wrote.

"Max taught me to look at life differently," she added. "If a young child can 'look at the bright side' and look forward to the future (even though he may not have one), so could I."

Donlon said the stories are powerful. "You learn about other people through their stories," she said. "You see them around the hospital, and you think about their story."

Donlon promotes the book among colleagues and invites them to read the stories. She shares it with new nurses at orientation to help them understand the hospital's culture.

"Some nurses don't know their real value. The book helps to validate the tremendous amount of work they do," she said.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.