I hate Nurse Appreciation Week. I find it patronizing and insincere. I know many of my colleagues cherish their Koozies and cheap lunch boxes and hand-held fans – all emblazoned with the hospital logo, of course. To me, though, it always feels a bit like that negligent, selfish son who pretty much ignores his mother all year but makes sure to take her out for a Mother’s Day lunch at Steak & Ale. Or the schlubby, immature husband who buys his wife something extravagant and needless and beyond their financial means to somehow compensate for years of forgotten birthdays and anniversaries. It’s a pretense.
This past week, some hospital representatives walked through the emergency department with two large buckets – one with individual-sized bags of chips, pretzels, and cheese puffs, the other with small portions of cookies. My good friend asked, “Oh, are these for Nurses’ Week?” The little Bean-Counter dispensing the snacks replied, “Um, no. It’s not just Nurses’ Week, it’s Hospital Week.” No, mother fucker. It’s not. It’s NURSES’ WEEK. Take a gander at social media. Even my non-medical friends know. Also, this isn’t little league baseball – we don’t all get a trophy.
We were told we could have one of the two items – “Sweet or salty, pick one. One per person!” A nurse next to me asked, “Why can’t we have both?” A valid question, since each item probably cost the hospital 25 cents. (This same nurse later took down her pony tail, removed her glasses, and presented herself as an entirely different person in order get a second item. Nothing says gratitude like having to steal it).
You see, gratitude – real gratitude – requires depth and specificity. It isn’t a day or a week marked on a calendar. It is not confined to a certain time frame, it doesn’t need recognition with cheap gifts and mass emails. Gratitude can only exist when there is a deficit between what you need or want, and your ability to fulfill that desire. It is when someone bridges that gap that you feel truly grateful.
When I was in the Trauma ICU after my accident, I had abrupt and inexplicably excruciating nose pain. Second to childbirth, it was the worst pain I have ever experienced. I could only describe it as feeling that an ice pick was being jammed into my nose. I was sobbing. My husband had gone home to get some rest. I wanted him, I wanted the pain to go away, I wanted to stop crying. My kick-ass nurse medicated me into oblivion, did her best to keep me calm, and called my husband to come back. Later, when the pain had subsided a bit and Jon was next to me, she saw that I was drenched in sweat and still hurting. The tears, though fewer, wouldn’t stop. She took the blankets off of me, put a wet washcloth on my head, and medicated me again. Finally, I slept. Do you know that I think about that moment almost everyday? I had such a deep and abiding need – to be free of pain, to be comforted and not alone – a need which I was completely and utterly unable to fill. And this nurse – this human, really a complete stranger with no incentive to care for me beyond a paycheck – met my need. The gratitude I feel cannot adequately be put into words.
You know what I’d like for Nurses’ Week? A note from my boss. It could be handwritten, or an email. But I’d like a note that expresses appreciation for something specific to me. For example: “I am so thankful that you are part of my team. I have seen you care for patients, and it fills me with pride to be the leader of such wonderful nurses. Something that I truly appreciate about you is your biting wit/willingness to be brutally honest/sometimes inappropriate but refreshing sense of humor/striking good looks/insert specific character quality of your choosing here. Our hospital is a better place because of you.” Or even, “I saw you taking care of a very sick patient recently, and I found myself hoping that, should I ever be in an ER stretcher, I would have a nurse like you. Thank you for taking such good care of our patients.”
That would be a lovely note to receive, wouldn’t it?
And, even though I know we would all prefer gift cards or just straight up cash, I think most nurses would appreciate a note like that. Because giving out bags of Baked Cheetos or rolling around the hospital dispensing cookies and juice can never convey gratitude. Only words can do that. It is looking someone in the eye and letting them know that, at some point, when you were broken and weary and lost, they met your needs without the expectation of reward. Gratitude is a form of humility. It is saying, “At that moment, in that situation, you were strong when I was weak. You fixed what I broke. You did what I was unable to do. And I am indebted to you.”
And nurses do that shit all day long, knowing that there will likely be no thanks (although you may have a patient yell, “Get me a Bible so I can wipe my ass!” which is basically the same thing).*
So, Hospital Administrators of Earth, please consider this next year when making your plans for Nurses’ Week. Maybe try making it personal and specific, highlighting the many ways your nurses span the chasm of pain and loss for patients every moment of every day. Don’t placate us with potato chips or Rice Krispie treats or coffee (of course we will still eat the shit out of them because, well, food) or phone chargers or Koozies. Say something to us which acknowledges the deficit that exists between what you want (ie, healthy, safe, satisfied patients) and your complete inability to fulfill that desire. Remind us that you are very much aware of and grateful for your nurses, because we do the things that you are unable to. Tell us – specifically and individually – that you are truly grateful for the ways in which we bridge the gap for patients every day.
Cash is always a nice touch, too.