Many years ago I started nursing with the same “why” as many of you — I wanted to help people. It wasn’t until several years later, when I was working in the Emergency Department, that I realized what helping people actually means.
I was in the ED working with a woman who had a minor ortho injury. The unusual thing was that every time I walked into the room she and her husband would give me this strange look — as if they were trying to figure something out. Eventually, they asked, “Are you the same Dan Freeman who used to work in the Pediatric ICU?”
This question always made my heart sink. Did their child die or survive? Was it a good experience or a bad one?
I answered, “Yes, I am.” And then they proceeded to remind me about their daughter, a patient I had helped care for six years earlier. Their daughter had been kicked off her horse and then stepped on.
I remembered them instantly. Their daughter had coded several times in the hospital, and she ended up paralyzed from the waist down. I was her primary nurse for the entire time she was in the PICU.
Not exactly a “happy memory”. But what the couple said next was so cathartic that it changed my whole outlook on what it means to be a nurse — it gave me my true “why.”
The couple proceeded to tell me that their daughter was still paralyzed and in a wheelchair. However, she had become a nurse and was now working in a call center where she provided patient advice. They also told me that the only reason they were able to make it through the last 6 years was because of me.
I thought they were going to thank me for participating in the codes, for providing great patient care, for something heroic — but what they said was profound.
They reminded me of something that happened during the last week I cared for their daughter, prior to her transfer out. We had done some vent weaning and were preparing to extubate. The parents asked me how they were going to tell their daughter that she was paralyzed — that she wouldn’t be able to ride horses anymore, that her life had changed.
Apparently, I looked at them and said, “Just tell her — she already knows. She just needs to know that you all will be OK.”
These words became their motto. Whenever they were faced with a challenge, they would “just tell her – she already knows.”
These few words opened up their lines of communication with their daughter. These words created a bond that allowed them to hit things head on and not only survive but flourish. It wasn’t the medications, it wasn’t the CPR, it wasn’t the heroic measures that we performed in the PICU that this family remembered — it was a single comment I had said that changed their outlook on life.
And for me, this experience became my “why.”
I use my why in everything I do now. I try to be transparent. I try to speak my mind. And I try to be realistic about everything I do — from building a team, to managing daily operations, to working with patients.
Every nurse has to find their own why. To all my colleagues in trauma and ED nursing, I hope your why inspires you in the same way my why motivates me.
Dan Freeman, RN, CEN, CFRN is the emergency department director at Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, Oregon.