When I was still in nursing school, I remember taking care of this one little boy during my Pedia rotation in a charity hospital (it’s not a government hospital if you’re wondering, it’s actually a private hospital that offers free services to the less fortunate).
The kid was about 5 years old, diagnosed with an incurable liver disease. If you would guess his age just by looking at him, you’d think he was only about 2 or 3. His skin was yellow from his forehead to the tip of his toes, very frail, skin and bones, and his abdomen was twice the size of his head.
My rotation was in the mid-afternoon, around the time when all the kids in the unit were getting their naps. Stephen, that was his name, would still be up, inquisitive who would be his next nurse. The first time I met him, he was seated on his mother’s lap and he looked at me with those big round eyes, not smiling, but really curious. He wasn’t shy or timid. He was just really paying attention to me.
I stretched out my hand and introduced myself as his (student) nurse. He looked at my face then at my hand. He then smiled and held my hand, I would say for about 10 seconds, without saying any word. When he finally let go of my hand, I proceeded to introduce myself to his mom. She was really nice, but you can tell that she has been crying a lot.
For 5 to 6 hours every day for 5 days, I was his mid-afternoon student nurse. We would play, talk, watch tv, read stories, walk around the unit, and anything that you can think of what kids would do when they are elated. Friday came and I told him that I wouldn’t be back until Monday. I thought I saw regret in his face.
I eagerly showed up for my rotation that Monday. At the Nurses’ Station, I asked if I could be Stephen’s student nurse again since we bonded really well the previous week. The nurse in charge said ok. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stephen’s mom seated in one of the chairs, far from his room. She looked like she has been crying for awhile, she has both of her hands covering her face. I remember how my mom looked when my brother passed, slumped in the corner of our kitchen, her face buried in her hands. I wanted to sit next to her, hug her, and tell her that everything would be ok. But I know, with Stephen’s condition, it will never be ok. They are just counting days, if not months.
I silently walked to where she was seated and lightly tapped her shoulder. I do not want to just go inside Stephen’s room without her knowing, and I also wanted her to know that Im there if she needed someone to talk to. She just held my hand and cried. When she was able to mutter a few words in between sobs, she told me that Stephen’s condition worsened. The doctors had to put a nasogastric tube (a tube that delivers food if a patient is unable to eat or is not getting enough nutrients.) over the weekend.
When I entered his room, he was sitting on his bed, watching tv. He wasn’t as jolly as he was the previous week. He was still happy when he saw me but I guess the energy wasn’t there. With the tube feeding and added supplements, by Thursday, he was back to his usual self, playing around, screaming, running, and talking non stop. It was really nice just hearing his voice echo in the room.
The last week of my rotation came. I was very much aware of a child’s separation anxiety. It has been mentioned numerous times in our classes. I tried to tell Stephen that it was my last week, though I was not sure if I was preparing him or myself. I would be assigned in a different unit the following week and I do not know if I would see Stephen again.
My last day came. It was finally time to say goodbye. The nasogastric tube has been out for a few days and Stephen has been allowed to do whatever he wants and eat whatever he can tolerate from his specialized diet. I remember being happy seeing him running around and laughing all the time, him and his large belly. He doesn’t seem to mind it. Deep inside though, I was sad. I remember fighting so hard to hold back my tears that I just waved my hand at him to say goodbye. I knew that if I tried to hug him I would lose it. I really wanted to embrace him so tight and say thank you for letting me take care of him, for trusting me. As I turned around to walk away, I felt this really tight hug around my legs.
Stephen was hugging me.
I froze and started crying. That was the very first time I cried on a patient. It took me a moment to gather myself and wipe my tears before I could face him. When I turned around, he was looking at me with those big round eyes, not smiling, but a little sad. I knelt down and gave him a really big hug. I told him I was grateful that I met him and that I would miss him.
I promised myself that I would come back on my day off and just spend a day with Stephen, maybe buy him a new toy or book. When I finally was able to drop by his unit a few weeks after, he was already gone. The nurses said that he passed away peacefully. I wasn’t able to say goodbye. I would have hugged him one more time.
That was 17 years ago. I still remember his face, his voice, his laughter, and most of all, his hug. I remember you Stephen, I still do, and I don’t think I will ever forget you.