Mr. and Mrs. B were an elderly couple who spent more of their lives together than apart. Married for 61 years, they had the kind of connection you read about in fairy tales. One summer, they decided to embark on a vacation to Florida to see the sights and enjoy the sunshine when something went terribly wrong their tour bus crashed and their vacation abruptly ended.
The lovebirds were rushed to Tampa General Hospital with life-threatening injuries that would separate them for the first time in years. Mr. B suffered spinal and rib fractures and lung contusions that required him to be on a ventilator for several weeks. His stay in the trauma ICU was a rollercoaster of bad and worse days, and his age was a huge factor against progressive healing. Infection, delirium and immobility contributed to a poor prognosis. Mrs. B was taken to the neuro ICU with similar injuries. I cared for Mr. B many times and experienced his ups and downs firsthand. I thought about how lonely he was, even though the nurses were at his bedside most of the time. I made an effort to remind him that his wife was doing well and he would see her again.
Many days passed, and as their three loving children bounced back and forth between the two units, their apprehension increased. To help ease their anxiety, the nurses and management of the two ICUs arranged for Mrs. B to be moved to the room next door to her beloved husband. Mrs. B improved quickly, but Mr. Bs progress was much slower.
Mrs. B was doing well off of the ventilator for a couple of days when the nurses decided it was time for them to be reunited. It was quite a challenge to move each of them into chairs and ensure their safety. They both required oxygen and neck and back braces to keep them stable. A respiratory therapist, a physical therapist and Mr. and Mrs. Bs nurses worked as a wonderful alliance to take Mrs. B next door to see her husband.
When she arrived in his room, Mr. Bs face changed. He looked at her in shock, as if he were dreaming. She was parked next to him, and for the first time in weeks they held hands. Because they both were trached, they were unable to speak, but they didnt need words. Mrs. B was smiling from ear to ear, and Mr. Bs face relaxed as though his fears had been eased by her presence.
Many nurses gathered in the hall in front of his room to witness the reunion. Many of us were teary-eyed and overcome with joy. I imagined the emotions I would experience if I were in Mrs. Bs place, and it touched me.
I am a strong believer in will and purpose in life. Many times Ive heard patients say they were too tired to keep fighting and then die shortly thereafter. I also have witnessed couples injured in car accidents who died within hours of each other, too ill to be mentally aware of the others passing, but I think they must have felt it in their spirit. I believe the encouragement this couple received from the staff and the pure connection of their souls fueled their will to fight.
Mr. and Mrs. B were transferred to a rehab facility back in their home state. Now when I walk by those rooms, I am reminded of the power of empathy, collaboration and most importantly love.
Katina Franke, RN, is a nurse at Tampa (Fla.) General Hospital.