When I think about what it truly means to be a nurse, I always recall a particular cold November night in Maine.

The OR schedule was running late, and just as we were finishing our last surgery, a call came from the Emergency Department; a badly broken wrist was coming up for repair.

While I wearily trudged back from the recovery room, I braced myself for the long evening ahead. The patient with the broken arm was already waiting, a small, disheveled form huddled under a thin sheet in the hallway.  As I turned to get a blanket from the warming cabinet, I saw Linda hurrying toward the gurney with an arm full of them.

Linda, a long-time employee at this small community hospital, was a nurse known as much for her curt demeanor as her excellent nursing care. I watched as she briskly tucked warmed blankets around the shivering patient, and I listened quietly to their conversation.

The patient, Sally, was in her sixties, and lived alone. She had cerebral palsy, which hampered her mobility but not her spirit. She told Linda that she had to get home immediately after surgery; she would NOT be staying at the hospital. Sally had dogs and cats that needed to be fed, a temperamental wood stove that had to be tended to carefully to keep the pipes from freezing, and there was no one she could call for help.

I watched the emotions play across Linda’s face as she gripped Sally’s hand. Using her most firm tone of voice that left no room for discussion, Linda explained that since the surgery would most likely go past midnight, it would be best if Sally agreed to let her run over to feed the animals and tend the woodstove.

And Linda went. She also tidied Sally’s house, stocked her fridge, and bought enough dog and cat food to see her through the lengthy recovery of a broken arm. She even checked in on her and the animals after Sally was discharged.

Linda would say she is not a hero, anyone would do those things.  But I beg to differ.

Her profound gift was in the way she acknowledged and honored Sally’s fiercely beautiful independence and provided the exact kind of care she needed – for both her body and soul.

And that’s what nurses do. They tend to the emotional and physical, they relieve the pain and the suffering.  They give the injections, but they also take your soiled clothes home for a wash, or buy you a better pair of boots if you’ve slipped on the ice. 

Nurses ARE heroes. Quiet and unsung, arriving early and staying late, picking up the pieces of a broken health care system. When I think of what it truly means to be a nurse, I remember the way startled gratitude replaced the stark lines of anxiety on Sally’s face. Not from an expensive medication or sophisticated procedure, but from the compassion and grace of a nurse.