Many people are afraid of the dark. I think that is because it is hard to see what lurks in the shadows. My belief is that some people are afraid of the quiet that comes with the night. No hustle and bustle to distract us from reality. Being a night nurse, I have become accustomed to the dark and I have grown to embrace the quiet. I am a Registered Nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at a major teaching hospital in Boston. I love the nights here.
There is nothing like holding a baby in your arms at 11:59 pm on Christmas Eve. Night nurses are special people. Some people call us crazy, but those people are the happiest that we are crazy enough to do nights. The night shift is usually quiet. I like to call it peaceful. It can still be very busy, but there are far less staff on at night, and often we are called to do tasks in other units. Sometimes we are asked to start IVs on the pediatric floor or draw labs in the Emergency Room or the Mother Infant Unit on a ‘normal’ newborn.
But one night in the winter of 2016, I was asked to do something very much out of the ordinary. I was asked to bless a very small baby who had passed away the day before. Tragically, the mother of (I will call him) PJ was in a devastating car accident. She was 20-something weeks pregnant and was driving when she was hit by a drunk/drugged driver head-on. I can remember seeing pictures of the car, and I couldn’t believe that anyone could have survived. PJ died on impact, the steering wheel delivering a deadly blow through the womb. His mom suffered horrific injuries and was in the ICU.
PJ was delivered the next day. His beautiful and fragile body was wrapped and brought to the Labor and Delivery to await the D.A.’s decision whether to prosecute the drunk driver or not, depending on the viability of PJ. The family of PJ was asking that the baby be blessed before his precious body was taken out of the hospital. Sadly, his mom was in a semi-comatose state and never got to see her beautiful boy.
Her family couldn’t bear to see him but they wanted him blessed and they wanted to be present. My charge nurse came to me and asked if I would be willing to do a blessing on this little boy. I guess I have a bit of a reputation as a ‘holy roller’ since I carry holy water and oil and Miraculous Medals in my work bag. I said, “Sure,” but I wasn’t sure what an appropriate blessing would be. I said a small prayer and asked for guidance and found a beautiful prayer for infants who had died. One of the greatest things about working at night is the camaraderie of of the nurses. My charge nurse knew this is something that shouldn’t be done alone, so we took a deep breath, I got my holy oil out of my bag, and together we headed over to Labor and Delivery to get little PJ.
What a beautiful child. Weighing a little over a pound, I could fit his tiny body in one hand. We gave him a bath and wrapped him in blankets. We put a knitted hat on his very small head. I can’t even describe the incredible feeling of privilege caring for this small and fragile body. He was so amazing. His long and strong fingers and toes; his perfect body so full of life and promise just days before now quiet and peaceful as the night. Many of the nurses who helped us wept at the loss.
We brought him to his family and, using the holy oil, blessed him and prayed with his family. Still his family could not bear to see him. I wish now I had asked them again. It would have given them the chance to see how flawless he was. I think seeing him and even holding him would have helped ease their overwhelming pain and loss – maybe not then and there, but possibly in the future… The most heartbreaking of all was that his mom would never get to hold or see him.
Amazingly, the DA denied not to press charges because little PJ was not viable and therefore not protected under the law. But little PJ’s life was truly not in vain. I am sure he brought great joy to his family even though his time was short and they never met him face-to-face. I hope having him blessed gave them solace in the days that followed. And little PJ left his mark on my heart and all of the nurses and doctors who cared for PJ, his mom, and all of his family present at his blessing.
For doctors and nurses whose hearts are sometimes hardened by the worst of humanity, this little boy showed them the most cherished part of humanity – a small, fragile baby. I am always amazed that people are surprised to see that a baby so small has all of their fingers and toes and are perfect even though they are little.
Taking care of PJ has made me want to do more to help people deal with bereavement and end-of-life issues. As I said, I wish I had been able to get PJ’s family to see him, but I didn’t have the right words. I wasn’t comfortable talking about death; I should have known what to say. Since that night, I have been actively involved in starting a Palliative/Bereavement Care Team in the NICU. Surprisingly, I am not alone in my interest in helping parents and families deal with this delicate issue. So far to-date, 40 nurses have signed on to the team. The primary goal of this team is to teach nurses to be better advocates for patients and families dealing with end-of-life issues.
I will forever remember little PJ and his family. He has helped me be a better and more attentive nurse. Caring for him and his family has sent me in a new direction in my nursing career. Taking care of him has even helped me think about life differently. Sometimes, when it’s late at night and I’m having a tough night, I think of him and his mom. I send up a prayer and ask him to look down on me and my previous charges and, more often than not, suddenly things don’t seem as dark and noisy anymore.