Anyone who’s ever been to a hospital knows that nurses are akin to everyday heroes.
They get to know their patients intimately by caring for them physically and mentally, offering tough love and encouragement in spades. And they do this while also offering endless support and sympathy to families.
So in celebration of National Nurses Week, we asked nurses from around the country to brag a little by sharing their ultimate aha! career moment—the one experience that they will carry with them forever.
Here are seven moving stories that will no doubt stay with you, too.
“The Night I Learned What It Meant to Be ‘The Nurse’ ”
“I was a brand-new nurse working the night shift in the NICU, and one of my patients was an infant who was born so prematurely that we couldn’t do anything to save his life. His young mother was stoic throughout the whole experience, and I felt helpless standing next to her, waiting for the inevitable to happen.
As I stood beside this grieving mother, she told me she wanted to have her baby baptized before ‘he was gone.’ I ran to the charge nurse with the request, thankful to finally feel like I could do something. The charge nurse told me to call the chaplain, who didn’t answer. I called every chaplain on the list only to discover that there was no one to be found in the middle of the night.
I went back to the charge nurse with this news and she said words that have stayed with me since: ‘I guess you are going to have to do it because you are the nurse.’ She must have anticipated that I was going to ask for another nurse or a respiratory therapist—someone, anyone, more qualified to baptize a dying infant than me.
So I went back to see the mom and tell her that although I was unable to find a chaplain, I would baptize her baby, if that was OK with her. I took a small baby bottle of sterile water in one hand and held the infant in the other. I asked the mom the baby’s name and recited some words I must have learned in Sunday school. Then I poured a bit of water on that dying baby, dried him off and handed him back to his mother.
She held the baby for a little while, and placed him back on the bed. Then she hugged me and cried. I hugged her back and cried, too. In that moment, I understood what it meant to be ‘the nurse.’ ”
—Martin Schiavenato, associate professor at Washington State University College of Nursing
“The Day I Forged a Relationship with a Little Girl in Need of Love”
“I’ll never forget Bliss, a 4-year-old girl admitted to the pediatric unit for oppositional defiant disorder and aggressive behavior. Her elderly grandmother was caring for her because her father wasn’t involved and her mother was in jail. Prior to living with her grandmother, Bliss was in and out of foster homes because she was a difficult child.
When I met Bliss, she’d been acting out in school, getting physically aggressive with other students, and even threatening to harm herself and others. For this reason, she was brought to the hospital until she could be placed in a pediatric psychiatric facility. When I first introduced myself as her nurse, I asked Bliss what had brought her to the hospital. Arms crossed and eyes rolling, she responded, ‘Don’t act like you don’t know. They told you why I’m here.’
I was shocked that this 4-year-old had responded to me with such an adult tone, with such adult body language and attitude. Bliss didn’t garner much sympathy or empathy on first impression, but somewhere deep inside of me, my heart said, ‘Bliss is like every other little girl. She just needs to be loved.’
For this little girl to have enjoyed being in the hospital so much that she wanted to come back and show me the impact I’d actually had—it's something I’ll be so proud of for many years to come.
So I invested my time in this little girl. Don’t get me wrong—we weren’t having tea parties and playing dress-up. Instead, I set limits with her. I corrected her when she talked to staff inappropriately. I turned the TV off when it was time to eat or wash up.
At first, she was defiant, but over time, she softened. I made time to talk with her, and she responded to the attention. I will never forget the first time she giggled, with a wide smile on her face and one front tooth missing. It warmed my heart.
Bliss stayed on my floor for a long time, and we became friends. We cared about each other. After she left my hospital, I thought about her daily and called to check in on her. Her grandmother wanted me to talk to Bliss directly, and when she got on the phone, I said, ‘Bliss, it’s your nurse Stephane. I don’t know if you remember me…’ She cut me off and said, ‘Of course I remember you. I miss you so much. I wish I could come back to the hospital.’
I almost cried. For this little girl to have enjoyed being in the hospital so much that she wanted to come back and show me the impact I’d actually had—it's something I’ll be so proud of for many years to come.”
—Stephane Pady, RN, FNP, a family nurse practitioner at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut
“The Time I Helped My Grandfather Die with Dignity”
“One year ago, I got a call that changed my world: My grandfather had been diagnosed with metastatic bladder cancer, and he and my grandmother needed my help figuring out his options. My grandfather stepped into my life as a father figure after my own dad passed away when I was 15, and he and my grandma did so much for me. They were amazing role models, and when I wanted to become a nurse, they did everything they could to help me get my education.
So when I got that call, I was devastated. But I also knew that my training as a nurse was about to take on new meaning. My grandfather’s oncologist was a doctor I’d worked with for 10 years, so I called him right away. When he told me that chemotherapy wouldn’t be an option—the cancer had progressed too much, and chemo would actually be dangerous—I started to make arrangements for hospice care.
My grandparents had always told me that they didn’t want to know if they were going to die, so I made sure they could have some time at home together to simply enjoy however much time they had left. I’m sure my grandmother knew on some level that she was going to lose her partner of 60 years, but I was able to shield her from all of the details and made sure to check in on my grandfather daily to look for signs that it was time to say a final goodbye.
When that time did come, I took him back to the hospital. I knew my grandmother wouldn’t be able to stay in her house if he passed away there. We did everything we could to keep him out of pain, and at 9:30 that night, he died.
As a nurse for 19 years, I’ve helped countless people. But to help the people who helped me so much, in such a profound way, was truly special—and something I’ll forever be grateful for being able to do.”
—Tanisha Tyson, MSN, BSN, RN, a former oncology nurse now teaching nursing at the University of Connecticut
“The Day I Was There for My Patient’s Mother”
“One of my favorite moments in my career occurred during my pediatric rotation in nursing school. I was assigned to a newborn with an extremely rare, infectious disease, and his mother was incredibly overwhelmed.
When I entered his room, it didn’t feel like I was in a hospital. His mom had hung cute curtains, the scent of lavender filled the air, and lullabies played quietly on a little stereo. As she shared her story with me, she began to cry. I did my best to comfort her and offered to keep an eye on her baby, so she could take a moment to get some food or something to drink.
Nursing isn’t just about the technical help we can provide; it’s about the compassion we show serving as a patient’s advocate in any way we can.
When she came back, she was still tearful—she had an appointment, but didn’t want to leave her newborn alone for a moment. So I told her that I’d spend the rest of the day with her little one, even though my shift was about to end. Alone with my patient, as I did bottle feedings, changed diapers, administered medications, performed assessments and took vitals around the clock, I wondered what my peers were up to. Were they seeing some amazing surgery or working on an exciting case?
The baby’s mom called to say she was running late and told me it was OK to go home. I held my little patient one last time, and tucked him into bed. Then I wrote a simple note for his mother that said: Your angel did great today. The next week, even though I’d moved to a different floor of the hospital, the mother found me to give me a hug and thank me profusely for taking care of her newborn.
I often look back on that experience as a reminder that so often the patients we treat—and especially their families—just need someone to listen, support and nurture them, too. Nursing isn’t just about the technical help we can provide; it’s about the compassion we show serving as a patient’s advocate in any way we can.”
—Kelly Hunt, RN, BSN at Mission Hospital and past president of the National Student Nurses’ Association
“The Day I Received a Letter I’ll Keep Forever”
“During my first year out of nursing school I was working in the neurology department and had a patient in the intensive care unit. She’d been in a terrible car accident that had left her brain-dead. She was 19 years old.
As I cared for her, I developed a relationship with her family. I was only 21 at the time and now, 40 years later, as a mother myself, I can’t imagine what they must have been going through. At the time, I just tried to be there for them. I encouraged them to talk to their daughter, to hold her hand, to tell her how much they loved her. I also spent a lot of time easing their fears as best I could, explaining to them what all of the machines their daughter was hooked up to were doing for her.
When it was clear this young girl wasn’t going to improve, her parents made the decision to stop the ventilator and donate her organs. It was so sad, and I just tried to be as empathetic as possible, doing whatever I could for them during this most stressful, sad moment of their lives.
A few weeks later, my boss shared a handwritten letter with me that the girl’s parents wrote, expressing their gratitude for my work. One line read: Sharon Pearce helped my family through a very trying time. Without her honest feelings of care and sympathy, I think we could not have taken the loss of our daughter, Tina, as easily.
I’ll cherish this letter forever, which serves as a reminder of the many ways our role as nurses impact our patients.”
—Sharon Pearce, CRNA, MSN, president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists and CRNA at Carolina Anesthesia and Associates
“The Day I Saved a Life”
“I work in a chief of surgery’s practice where I take care of patients pre-operatively and post-operatively. Recently, one of the surgeon’s longtime patients made an appointment. He hadn’t been to the office for quite some time, so when he came in on a stretcher from a rehabilitation facility, we were all surprised.
He had an enterocutaneous fistula, which is an abnormal connection or opening between the intestinal tract and the skin. As a result, contents from the intestines leak through to the skin, creating an extremely uncomfortable irritation that is very difficult to manage.
Our patient was weak and in pain, and there were also signs of infection. He told me that since we had last seen him, his wife had passed away from cancer, and he’d had coronary bypass surgery. I was looking at a man who was not only very sick, but who also had no hope for the future.
When I asked how he was doing, he looked at me and said, ‘Even though the doctor did my surgery, you saved my life.’ It’s moments like these that make me proud to be a nurse.
During that visit, I asked a wound care nurse to MacGyver an appliance that would help our patient manage his symptoms until his fistula could be closed up. And within a week, we’d set up him up for surgery to do just that. I worked with staff at the rehab center to transfer him to the hospital, and with his insurance companies to make sure that everything was going to be covered.
When he came into the office again for his post-operative visit, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He walked in and sat at the edge of our examination table like nothing had happened. He was with his son and smiling ear to ear. And his abdominal wounds were healing perfectly.
When I asked how he was doing, he looked at me and said, ‘Even though the doctor did my surgery, you saved my life.’ With tears in his eyes, he told me that he’d gone from having no will to live to now having plans to travel and enjoy the rest of his life. I sat down next to him and we both cried tears of joy. I’ll never forget how it felt to see such a difference in someone’s life knowing I was part of it. It’s moments like these that make me proud to be a nurse.”
—Sara Portnoy, RN, nurse coordinator at Overlook Surgical Associates in Summit, New Jersey
“The Day One Patient Taught Me the Importance of Hope”
“For some time, I worked with patients who suffered from chronic kidney disease—people whose kidneys had failed and who required dialysis treatments three times a week to stay alive. I worked in many dialysis clinics throughout the years, and they are all pretty much the same: a large room with chairs and machines lining the perimeter of the rooms, the smell of chemicals wafting in the air.
One day, I started a new patient on her very first treatment. She’d lost enough function that she would require dialysis for the rest of her life. In fact, the closest thing to a cure would be a kidney transplant, which could take up to five years to happen. I started sharing all of this with her in a quest to educate her about her situation, but she stopped me mid-sentence and asked, ‘So you are telling me I will never get better, that my kidneys will never work again?’ I responded, ‘That’s right, your kidneys have failed. They will never regain function.’
My thought was to move her past that fact so I could counsel her on what happens next. What I wasn’t really thinking about was that she was only 38 years old and deeply faithful. She tearfully interrupted me and said, ‘I believe God can heal me.’ My heart sank; I didn’t know what to say next.
After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, I placed my hand on her shoulder, looked into her eyes, softened my voice and offered, ‘Yes, there is always hope.’ And there it was: the most truthful—and probably most therapeutic—thought I could have offered.
That day, I learned that even when we feel there is nothing left to give medically, you should never take away a patient’s hope. And you most certainly can offer it.”
—John Modrzejewski, FNP-C, a family nurse practitioner who works with the Green Valley Fire Department