The Patient, The Person at the Center of my Care

By Maria McClatchie, RN In October, I will be running the Chicago marathon.  I’m not a runner, but was inspired by my friend, Richard, to join the SCIS (Spinal Cord Injury Sucks) team and commit to raise money for spinal cord injury cure research, as well as awareness of the devastation that spinal cord injuries can cause.

Unfortunately, I am running not only in honor of Richard, but in memory of him, as Richard passed from complications of quadriplegia last February. I was part of the care team who got to know Richard during the months he spent at OU Medical center following a spinal cord injury which left him paralysed from the chest down.  He shared with me  the things he loved before his injury, how he lived an active and full life while teaching others to do the same. 

I’d like to share with you this short story about Richard and what may be learned from the patient who is  at the center of our care.

Richard was admitted to the Trauma ICU May 5th 2010 following a bike accident which fractured his neck and injured his spinal cord. I remember the first two days with him very clearly. Naturally he was scared, unsure, distraught, but behind the anxiety was an active, health conscious person who, despite the stress of the situation, made sure his mother was bringing him tilapia and protein shakes rather than having to eat the cafeteria food. I remember being amused by this, as I was almost seven months pregnant and jumped at any chance to eat unhealthy! At the end of his second day, the swelling in his spinal cord had begun to supress Richard’s ability to breath and, as a result, he was sedated and placed on a ventilator. This was the last time I saw Richard for almost two months.

That night, as I was leaving, I went into premature labor and was placed on bedrest. 

I returned to work on July 5th and was surprised to see Richard still on the unit.  He was still ventilator dependant and communication was difficult because we rely on lip reading to communicate with ventilated patients (another skill Richard helped me with). Each day I spent caring for Richard (and his mother, Sharon, who was there everyday) I learned a bit more about him and all the things he enjoyed in life. I used his expertise as a personal trainer to begin losing my pregnancy weight and in September when a group of nurses on the unit started a weight loss competition, Richard created a personal workout regimen for me, cheered me on, and made sure I gave up my 3 Coke Zero a day habit. While I didn’t win the competion, I lost by 1/2 a pound Sharon and Richard had a special workout shirt made for me that read proudly, “Body By Dick”.

I had the pleasure of spending nine months with Richard and Sharon and the rest of the family. I came to love Richard for who he had been and who he was becoming. He may not have meant to, but he taught me that I am not caring for a spinal cord injury, I am caring for a person with a spinal cord injury.   I am a better person and definitely a better nurse because of Richard .   I am now trying to “pay it forward” by raising money for spinal cord injury research, and I feel it’s important to share his story.

Spinal cord injuries are, unfortunately, a very common injury and devastate those injured as well as their family and friends.   It’s difficult as a health care provider. As a nurse in a level one trauma unit,  we can often feel we are fighting a losing battle.  We have to remember we are caring for a person, not an injury.  And often the people who need our care the most is the family of the patient whose life we touch, even if for a short time.  There are some patients who we just can not physically save. But providing patient centered care means we know each patient is a person, each family unique and regardless of the outcome, we can rest assured, at the end of the day we have truly cared for our patients.

Richard will not be there, at the finish line, to celebrate my run.  But the impact he had on my life will live on forever.

Originally published by l.s. roberts on October 3, 2011

November 2011.  Follow up to original post. Maria ran the Chicago Marathon not only finishing as was her original goal, but completing her first marathon in 5 hours 54 minutes.  When I texted her the evening of her race she shared that she heard Richard’s voice in her head the entire run.  (l.s. roberts)