In the Catholic tradition there is a piece of wisdom handed down by St. Thomas Aquinas: “Grace perfects nature.” In a recent encounter during my nursing clinicals I learned a bit more about this theological insight. Cooperating in a moment of grace with one patient soon returned a hundredfold just minutes later with another. In the meanwhile, I could feel my being made better. I felt the medicinal urticate of grace as it stung to perfect my own nature and hopefully that of others, too.
I had had two days working with a small and chubby, but still short-for-length baby. The room was lowly lit in an extra effort to ward off additional seizures. His was an abuse case that had adult child services and special victim’s unit involved. I bathed him. He held my finger in his weak palmar grasp. Diaper changes and reinserting a nasogastric tube were not amenable moments. For the most part, because this 7-month-old’s suspect parents were peripheral, for these two days of clinical it was just me and the infant. My heart was attached and broken several times over.
For instance, I was devastated when I found out the blindness caused by hemorrhaging was likely his new permanent reality. This was a completely healthy baby the last time he saw his doctor. It took my breath from me when a nurse explained that the specialists were not sure if he would regain a coordinated swallow; this meant he would be indefinitely on tube feeds. His cheeks were full and his curls cute.
And then it came time for me to walk away. My two days of clinical that week were over. I walked from his room having said goodbye with just minutes to spare before I needed to leave the floor and tears behind.
On my way out, I saw a three-year-old patient working with physical therapy. The toddler stood impatiently looking out the pane of glass in the door to his room. I could see the struggle it was for PT to keep him standing on his own feet. The boy was resisting, not wanting to hold his own weight.
With dense sadness in my heart from the infant’s room out of which I had just gone, I slumped on lackluster linoleum cross-legged across the glass from the restlessly dancing exhibitionist. This distracted him. We played patty-cake, his hands leaving fingerprints on the windowpane. He chased my hands and giggled as I moved them for him to catch. In so many ways this silly playing was as much a distraction from my sorrow as it was a diversion that this three-year-old boy might finish his physical therapy.
In the backscatter I am able to see that the brief gift of joy shared between the three-year-old and me was largely a grace that came to be from the baby I had just accompanied. As much as I would not like to admit it, most days when I walk out of the hospital I am not looking for something to keep me there for a few extra minutes. However, on a day like the one I describe, a day when I have undeniably been a good nurse, the best is brought out of me even more. Having tragically loved a 7-month-old, suddenly, I was all the more able to care for the three-year-old.
And it did not stop there, either. Grace builds on grace as it perfects nature. The most stinging sensation was on the third day when I was at home and the baby, whom I begged hope’s hand to take, was even now growing my soul’s capacity for true charity. This encounter with grace, a real shot in the arm, continues to nourish my bedside manner.
We help a patient get better and we are all the better for it. You may call it the economy of grace or effective altruism, if you please. At any rate, one cannot outgive God in the nursing profession. Even in our giving, we get and then can give magis.
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