As a weekend nurse on the inpatient unit at Kennedy Krieger, I work 12-hour shifts every Saturday and Sunday, caring for children with challenging injuries and disabilities. My own children, at 11 and 15 years old, spend their weekends engaged in a variety of fun activities, free from the grind of the school week. Last year brought a move to a new home in southern Maryland—Calvert County to be exact—which doubled my commute time to 90 minutes each way.
I often meet new people at my children’s school, and, as we get to know each other, we eventually come to the inevitable question of where I work. I’ve had this conversation enough times that I know what comes next. I tell them that I am a nurse—not terribly unusual since most people know someone in the medical field. Then, I tell them that I work at Kennedy Krieger… in Baltimore. The actual response may vary, but the implication is always the same: Why!?!
It’s a valid question, and I have to admit that when my alarm clock goes off at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, I sometimes ask myself the same thing. Wouldn’t it be easier to get a job at the local community hospital? What about all the reputable hospitals in D.C.? They would all be considerably closer, and I wouldn’t have to face my daughter’s sad face on Friday nights, disappointed she’ll be spending another weekend with “the guys”—her father and brother.
The answer, while not short, is simple.
For 12 hours, two days a week, I am intimately engaged in the lives and the healing of patients and their families. For some patients, it is routine: They’ve been on the unit before, and it’s a pleasant place full of familiar faces and comfortable habits. But for many, it’s a frightening, stressful, emotional journey that they and their families were in no way prepared to take. These patients have been thrust into a strange new world full of unfamiliar terms and unfamiliar people, where things change quickly and there is little privacy and a lot to learn. They are only beginning to come to terms with a new diagnosis or a new injury and only beginning to understand what kind of care will be needed. It’s often overwhelming at best.
And so for 12 hours, two days a week, I have this amazing opportunity to do as much as is in my power to help these patients and their families begin to put their lives back together. I cannot repair a damaged spinal cord or heal an injured brain. I cannot make promises or predictions about what a specific child’s recovery will look like. That isn’t my role. My role is to assure the families of my patients that, even when they cannot be present, I will care for their child as though he were my own, so that they too can begin to rest, heal and prepare for the journey ahead. It is a gift I hope to give each weekend as I walk through the door: the gift of trust, rest, peace and healing.
As Sunday comes to an end, no matter how tired I may feel, and no matter what may have unfolded while I was away from home, I head back to my family with a renewed perspective and gratitude for my own blessings. I spend my long commute back to Southern Maryland reflecting on the beauty of the human spirit and the courage and strength that I see in my patients, their families and my coworkers. And that is the gift that Kennedy Krieger’s patients give me—a gift well worth traveling for.
Laura Bellotte is a nurse on Kennedy Krieger Institute’s inpatient unit.