To a Superhero Nurse by Hana Kamruddin 

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To a Superhero Nurse by Hana Kamruddin 

This essay won the Gold award at the Queens Commonwealth Essay Competition 2022

“Whilst experiences of the last year have been different across the Commonwealth, stirring examples of courage, commitment and selfless dedication to duty have been demonstrated in every Commonwealth nation and territory, notably by those working on the frontline who have been delivering healthcare and other public services in their communities.” – Her Majesty The Queen, Commonwealth Day Message 2021. Imagine you are working on the frontline. Write about your experience, explaining why you serve your community and why your service matters.

It’s 4:30 am. The clock chimes every half hour, a reminder to resume our rounds, to monitor vitals and blood sugar levels. It’s also the ideal time for weary staff to take a break. Leaning against glass ward doors, propped up against steel canisters, resting in plastic chairs; figures in scrubs line the chaotic hallway, silent in their busy minds, lifeless statues in a tragic Shakespearean play.

But it’s only at early dawn, when the dark, prowling monsters rear their heads. My nurse-in-training badge attests to that fact, as we roll the stretcher down sloping ramps, shoes bolting to keep up and shouting over beeping machines about waning heat rates and bullet point symptoms.

In nursing school, they never told me how much stamina you would need to work day and night. Never told me I would lose twenty pounds in two months of back-to-back shifts without a single day in the gym, how much upper arm strength you needed to change in and out of protective gear until your skin was scratched raw. Your lungs adjust your breathing rate according to your environment, and as their insides turn into glass shards and the feeling of suffocation becomes familiar to your body; it adjusts like human nature intended.

Today is one of those days. Elderly patient, late 60s, pre-existing chronic issues, genetic predisposition for coronary cancer. He was eating dinner, his children explained in distress to the paramedic, promising his eager grandchildren another round of chess when he abruptly collapsed over the plate. A recent recovery from a case of coronavirus, they were elated, thinking the coast was clear.

In the ICU room, everything is red. The electrocardiogram with its spiking lines, pulsing after every defibrillation attempt. The hands of the attending doctor, from blood frothing in the patient’s mouth, as she yells clear after each push. The luminescent light, drawing halos over our surgical caps, as we hold him down. His skin, as the heartbeats fade, leaving behind a calm state of body, like he had just taken a peaceful nap. Our teary eyes, as we steel ourselves for the painful news, that years of schooling, of grit and determination, of success and failure, of devoting ourselves to a job that demanded everything of us, could not save this man.

My mother was horrified when I informed her I would be taking up nursing after college. She told me, “You’ll never have time to date, to find someone, or to be young and have fun with your friends.” Take up something less taxing, she begged out of love for her only daughter, but I was already in love. This was something I was meant to do—to meet patients with a cheery smile on my face, to help diagnose and treat diseases, to create the most fundamental difference in someone’s life. I grew up knowing that the one place I truly felt at home was in the wards, where I could see it all. Families reuniting, friends caring for one another, offering hugs and transplants and handwritten letters. My answer to the question “Why do you want to be a nurse?” on my application simply read: Because I know this is my way of helping the people around me, to create small circles of kindness and affection within my community.

But she had also been right. When the pandemic hit, everything was in shambles. The hospital had little to no gear left, and we fashioned protective clothing out of trash bags and craft store supplies. The hours we spent in quarantine units changed to days, then weeks, as lines lengthened outside the doors, people desperate for a bed, for a ventilator, for anything. I didn’t go home for weeks, instead switching to sleeping on scant blankets and bathing in the tiny staff bathroom. 

My friends called in, worried sick after three months of absence, and my parents flew in from miles away, hoping to catch a glimpse of me from windows above the hospital grounds. I look back to my days as an idealistic student, passionate and excited, in the way someone would gloss over old photo albums of their childhood. ‘So sweet’, they murmur nostalgically, ‘So unaware’, brushing fingertips over sepia grins. 

“Let’s create love and joy” is emblazoned on the walls ahead when I step out of the ICU to meet his family. Their faces tell us all we need to know; this is how we gauge how to break the news to their relatives. Hard, unemotive gets a straight and to-the-point delivery while a sobbing child gets an embrace and a quiet whisper. These are the worst. They’re hopeful, eyebrows upturned and lips stretched straight, teeth pulling skin and hands fidgeting.

I have done this about a hundred times, but my hands still shake, hiding behind me and clawing at the gloves as I give them a subdued answer to their rushed queries. The response is instant, their faces melting like paint under rain. I remember the Greek plays I watched, where actors wore tragedy masks, looking like they were in constant agony. It seemed like a play, except it was real, real enough for me to play a character, a pivotal role.

After a while, the pain subsides. Then the shock sets in, pulling emotions into disarray and signaling denial in the brain’s core. I’ve seen it all, and knowing the stages, I walk away to the nearest water station, hands still shaking. They’re still shaking as I sip cold water and hear the cries of the grandson, wailing for grandpa. Taking a breather, I remind myself that this is to be expected. This is life, and with it comes death, and with our joy comes sadness. I cannot save people from emotional pain, I chant to myself in a mantra, walking further away, only save them from the physical.

Sitting on the cold tiles, I rub my fingers on the granite in a soothing gesture. When I was 7, my favourite aunt had died. I was inconsolable, crying over her body on the bed, angry at God for stealing my friend. It was the resident nurse who lovingly pulled my hands away and explained to me that God only took away his favourites, and that my aunt was having the best time up there. She promised that one day I’d see her again, but for now I had to let her go. I remember hugging her, thinking she was the best old lady ever, my new best friend. I knew back then that I wanted to be just like her.

To my right is the gynaecology department. I can see an emotional father, swaddling a newborn, beaming over tiny fingers and pinkish skin. The circle of life, the irony hits me, while more relatives coo over the baby. In my trance, I barely notice a small girl running to me with a handful of lollipops in her hands. She tells me, with a glowing face, that her new baby sister had just been born and her Dada wanted to celebrate. Handing me the candy, she broke into a toothy smile before continuing her sprint down the hallway.

Like a sudden moment of inspiration in a coming-of-age movie, my grief in my heart is lessened. It is a reminder of everything sweet in this life, of what I can do as a nurse. I can be a superhero, weaving jolly, dramatic tales for the young and old alike. I can be the person to convey the most heartbreaking or the most joyous news. I take on many roles, many faces; but out of a revolving closet of facades, I am still the same person. Still the teenager, ready to live out her heroic pursuits and Grey’s Anatomy re-enactments. Still the nursing student who stayed up late night after night for endless exams. I am still the passionate person who can make a difference, even if it’s not today. It could be tomorrow, or the day after, or maybe even in the next hour.

Walking back to the room is not easy. By far, it is the hardest thing I will ever do. But I muster up the courage and take nimble steps to the doorway and watch as the morticians wheel away the body. Weaving my fingers through the hands of my fellow trainee, we give each other weak smiles, knowing that today is hard, but tomorrow, we change something for the better, even if it’s as small as a bandaid over a scraped knee.