Saturday, April 29, 2017


NICU, NWM, Chicago, IL

"Where's the good?” the young father asked himself on the eve of his young daughter Kate’s third brain surgery after being struck by a car. Their story is related by Emily Smith in The Power of Meaning who posits that storytelling is one of the pillars of meaning in our lives. Anthropologist Mary Bateman notes that storytelling is an act of creation improvising like a jazz musician. Smith observes storytelling translates into an effort to make sense of the world and impose order on disorder, creating a coherent narrative.

The third surgery followed months of therapy and was scheduled to replace the piece of Kate’s skull that had been initially removed to ease pressure on her brain. Kate’s father found the redemption he sought shortly after Kate came out from under the anesthesia. Hospital staff began to enter the recovery room one at a time to introduce themselves. Most of them began by stating that “You don’t remember me but…I was the admitting physician when you came into the ER, I was the nurse with the operating team, I was the chaplain on duty that spent time with your parents, I was the social worker on your case, I was the nurse that cared for you for the first days after your accident.”

The last visitor of smiling faces was the nurse that worked with Kate during the long summer days of therapy. Kate’s father thanked the nurse for coming by to wish Kate the best, but remarked “There’s something else going on here, isn’t there?” The nurse responded that “for every ten kids we see with this injury, nine of them die. There is only one Kate. We need to come back and we need to see her, because she is what keeps us coming back to work in this place every day.”

The young father later reflected that this redemption “doesn’t make the crisis worthwhile, but it makes it worth something.” Psychologist Dan McAdams concludes that people rate their lives more meaningful when they have redemptive stories to tell about extraordinary events in their lives. These stories come from scars that have healed over wounds that make a lasting impact on the person’s life.

When a monitor indicated a slight blip of concern for my newborn grandson, he was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at Northwestern Medical in Chicago. Thankfully, there was no problem, but the ensuing few days of cautionary testing were intensely stressful and bonding, although positive. The unit is locked and staffed with advanced technology and extraordinarily competent, nurturing specialists and practitioners.

We quickly got to know one of the senior nurses on the night shift who had returned out of retirement on weekends. She assured us that my grandson would be fine. I asked how she managed to keep it together all these years while working in this intense environment with premature infants and critically ill newborns. One in eight babies is born prematurely in the United States. The senior nurse responded that within the past few weeks, she was requested to report to the front lobby. When she entered the lobby a young mother introduced herself and then asked her twin daughters to introduce themselves. They told her that they were the preemie twins that she had nursed to health during their first weeks of life and they wanted to meet her and personally give her a hug of thanks. “That’s why I can get up and come to this place, even out of retirement”, the nurse replied with a smile.

Adam Gopnik observes in The New Yorker that when stories are told well they “levitate the room.” The emcee of The Moth where these stories are shared concludes that storytelling “is reaching out into the void and connecting with people and letting them know they’re not alone.” Kinda like a blog post.

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