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My Night Shifts At The Hospital Changed Bedtime Stories For The Better

Constipated polar bears, organ-donating dolphins, snakes with cancer, and unicorns in need of cesarean sections were just the beginning.

Somehow, I am the parent of a 4-year-old. In addition to the universal blur that is infant and toddler parenthood, her first years of life have passed in a haze of quarantine, career change, gender transition, and days, nights, and weeks in the hospital.

Many families spend all or some of their children’s lives in the hospital without any say in the matter, but for the most part, my family’s time in the hospital has been by choice. Before I’d even weaned my daughter from chestfeeding, I began a career transition into medicine. My wife undertook her own career change a few months later, and we’ve since spent an entire year working in the same hospitals — one in Kentucky, one in North Carolina; nights, days; days, nights. My daughter doesn’t ask for it as often these days, but for months, the only bedtime stories she was interested in were essentially made-up medical case studies. She’d usually choose a patient (most often an animal) then insist that my wife or I tell her exactly what was wrong with the patient and what had been done to treat them. All three of us would drift off to stories of constipated polar bears, organ-donating dolphins, snakes with cancer, unicorns in need of cesarean sections.

Before my stories became interspersed with snores (my own first, then presumably hers), I tried to be mindful of what I was telling my daughter through these stories. What was I saying about medicine, about bodies, about the world? I noticed my tendency to craft stories with tidy endings. The patient was sick, got hurt, felt bad. They sought help. They got better.

I want to capture the magic I feel at work — the sense of joy, privilege, and curiosity that I feel more often than not and most strongly in the hospital — but I also don’t want to overlook the suffering.

But there were only so many tidy stories I could tell. I tried to weave in complications, reminding myself and my daughter that sometimes we get hurt and stay hurt. Sometimes we get hurt when we seek care. Sometimes things are sad. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do. Sometimes we don’t know or don’t get to know.

I remember a couple of really hard nights when she asked for these stories and I just couldn’t tell them. Most parents and caregivers can probably relate to the mind-emptying and tongue-tying that can happen when you’re asked again and again and again to tell a particular kind of story or a joke. On those nights my inability to tell these stories was heightened by the exhaustion, and emotional intensity of caring for actual patients and the reality of doing that as a parent also caring for this child, my child. Eventually I bargained: “I can’t tell you a story right now. The words aren’t in my brain. All I can do is tell you about my patients today; do you want me to do that?” Immediately my child softened, settled. “Yes!”

I’ve spent much of this year working as a nursing assistant on an acute pediatric surgery, trauma, and burn unit, and I am more familiar than ever with the ways that disability, illness, and trauma can and do impact children, all the way from marshmallow-soft newborns to hairy, gangly teenagers. Just like telling the imaginary stories, when I tell the real ones, I try to stay mindful of how the details will land with my daughter. I don’t want to inappropriately scare her, nor entirely shelter her. I want to capture the magic I feel at work — the sense of joy, privilege, and curiosity that I feel more often than not and most strongly in the hospital — but I also don’t want to overlook the suffering, burnout, grief, and despair that are also so often present for health care workers and patients alike. When I tell these stories — the real ones — I usually find a detail and follow it, lulling my daughter to sleep with the details of an interesting medical history or the parameters for normal vital signs or the long walk from one end of the hospital to the other.

I too trace these details when I am trying to make sense of my own experiences in health care. In the past two and a half years, I have completed a pre-med program for career changers and a master’s in bioethics, and worked many, many hours in the hospital. A few weeks ago, after a long year in application-cycle limbo, I finally learned that I will indeed begin medical school later this year. Telling a coherent, linear story of these experiences — to myself, let alone anyone else — feels impossible. There are too many sharp edges, blurry details. I know this season has forever changed me — for better and worse — but, much like the earth-shatteringly hazy days of early parenthood, the bulk of it is beyond words.

Every time I walk into a supply room and am greeted by the unmistakable scent of recently opened packages of Pampers, I’m immediately transported back to my daughter’s first hours of life.

I can’t count the number of times people have said “Oh, I could never work in peds, especially as a parent.” I see where they’re coming from, but for me, I can do this, I am doing this, I am good at this largely because I am a parent. And in ways I didn’t expect, these nights away from my bed, my home, my kid in order to care for other kids and families who are also away from their own beds and their own homes have made me a better parent.

I have seen families on their best and worst days. I know exactly how much it hurts to hold your screaming, sad, scared, angry, hurting kid and just how deep the relief is when they finally calm into your chest, fall asleep, crack a smile, or request their favorite thing again. I’ve witnessed the magic — time and time again now — of families holding hands and faces and bodies and straws and barf bags through life and pain and birth and death.

Every time I walk into a supply room and am greeted by the unmistakable scent of recently opened green packages of Pampers, I’m immediately transported back to my daughter’s first hours of life. The haze of blood clots and dirty diapers and sleep deprivation and falling in love with a new baby — our baby! — smelled exactly like every pediatric supply room I’ve ever been in. I’ve seen parents sleeping in cribs so their child could co-sleep with another family member on the visitor sofa. I’ve walked in on babies curiously looking around — calm, wide-eyed — while their parents soundly sleep. I’ve realized that no matter how dark and endless and terrible it sometimes feels, nighttime isn’t all tears and tossing and turning, and it’s softened my own feelings toward our family’s chaotic nights.

It all blurs together — in the stories, in reality — and I am glad. The separation is deceptive, the complexity more accurate. Whether I am telling bedtime stories or trying to make sense of my own experiences, all I can do is recount the details: the way it feels to wake up from anesthesia; the taste of kissing a loved one who was just extubated; the way it feels to fall asleep in a hospital bed — perhaps alone, perhaps wrapped around another — and to be awakened too soon each and every time you do; the way it feels to get good news and bad, to leave together and to leave alone; the way the sun and moon each look at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. — in summer, fall, winter, spring; exactly how much caffeine it takes to get through three, four, five consecutive 12-hour night shifts; how tightly my daughter hugs me whenever I am done working — the way her arms feel around my neck at age 1, 2, 3, now 4. In a medical system that so often robs everyone in it of their humanity, there is so much humanness here. Sometimes, we get hurt. Sometimes, things are sad. Sometimes, there’s nothing we can do. Sometimes, we don’t know. Sometimes, we don’t get to. And sometimes, just like in the stories, we do.

Andrew Givens (he/him) parents, studies, and works at a hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is an English major turned doula turned future family medicine physician. Andrew has a master’s in bioethics from the University of Louisville, and he loves to think, work, and play at the intersection of medicine, storytelling, and meaning-making. When he’s not sure what to do, he goes to the beach or entertains the thought of getting another degree. He lives in the woods with his wife, daughter, Great Pyrenees, bearded dragon, and whichever chosen family members are passing through.