Monday, December 6, 2010

What Happens Next

I certainly did not miss the beeping. 

It’s my first night back at work after being in Nicaragua for ten days. Of all the things that stick out to me most upon my return to Ruby Memorial, I think the constant beeping takes the cake.

Something on 7East is always beeping. There is quite a variety of beeps, actually. There’s the empty IV bag beep, the downward occlusion beep, the air-in-line beep, the sequential compression device beep, the fall prevention beep, the call light beep, the bathroom beep….the list goes on and on. Some of the beeps are sharp and urgent. Some are softer, fading into the background soundtrack of the night.  All of them get annoying. All of them have to be addressed. But tonight I’m just amazed that we have so many at all. Despite all of their efforts to keep me focused on my patient assignment, my mind keeps floating away from Ruby Memorial Hospital, and back to the soft sands of Pochomil on the Pacific coast.

I'm sure you can see why. 

Regardless of where my mind is, though, my body is home. And it's back at work. Alas, I've had to turn in my photojournalist hat, pick up my stethoscope again, and return to my duties as a nurse.

There’s this post-Nicaragua sense of appreciation that descends on most of the RMU group by the end of every trip, a sense of fresh perspective. Anyone who has been on the trip before understands it well. For me, stepping back into an American hospital nearly makes my head spin, seeing hand sanitizer and elevators and medical equipment and computers and medication scanners and all of the other modern-day healthcare amenities that we simply expect to find when we walk through the door. Because this is America. And Americans have it all. 

Robin, my charge nurse, apologized tonight for assigning me six patients on my first night back. But I certainly wouldn't dare complain. Not tonight. As I wrote down my assignment, I shared with Robin that Nicaraguan nurses are sometimes responsible for 45 to 50 patients at time on a medical-surgical floor like mine. And they don’t have a computer to tell them what their patient’s orders are or which medications need to be administered. They don’t have those luxuries that I do right at my fingertips. Sometimes I can't even imagine doing my work without a computer. But they do, every day.

Around this time of the night, between three and four in the morning, I start to catch up on my charting. My thoughts usually start to catch up with me too. I think about the undergraduates who were on this trip, most of whom I had never met before last Thursday. Often times I wonder, does it really change these college kids’ lives? Or is it just one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that eventually get tucked away in a box of fine memories? In a broader sense, with our ChangeALife campaign winding down in the next couple weeks, I wonder what real impact that we’ve had on the Pittsburgh community. After all the billboards get taken down and the commercials go off the air, will all of that hard work just be another phase of Robert Morris’ development as a local university? Or will it really have some sort of lasting impact?

I don't know.

I remember a conversation I had with Larkin Werner back on the beach at Montelumar Resort after we wrapped on the commercial in July. Being one of the top advertising gurus in Pittsburgh, I asked Larkin how he would define success for a campaign like this one. He responded in a way I expected. The results would take time, he said. But they would eventually be looking for success through increased admission numbers, in student surveys and community involvement. Larkin’s father, Ray, was our art director for the commercial, and he was the visionary behind the whole idea. I remember Ray telling me about a conversation with RMU’s president, Greg Dell’Omo. “I asked him what he wanted most out of a campaign of this size,” Ray told me on the flight home. “And he said, ‘This university has yet to make a real connection with the surrounding community. I want RMU to finally connect with people. The essence has to be about changing lives.’” 

Well, for President Dell’Omo and all the fine folks who work for the University, I hope we accomplished that. I hope we do see more student involvement in community service. I hope we do attract high school students who want to be a part of the ChangeALife team. I hope the campaign does all it was supposed to do. But for me, the success of this campaign will be defined a bit differently. 

For me, our success will be defined by what happens next. Success will happen when these RMU students become RMU graduates and wade out into this nation of pushovers and cynics and stand up for what’s right when the world tells them it’s wrong. For me, the success lies in DJ Smith when he doesn’t forget about that kid in Nicaragua who wants to be a doctor someday because of him. The success lies in MaryKate O'Hear when she raises her kids one day to appreciate the food on their dinner plates. The success lies in Brianne McLaughlin when she takes the time to talk to kids about working hard and taking pride in their country. The success lies in each and every RMU student who not only cherishes the college education they’re gaining, but then uses it as a tool to enrich the lives of those around them.

For once, I wish we’d take the focus off of changing the world. Honestly, the world will just keep getting worse. Sadly, that’s a given. In the meantime, though, we do have a chance to reach out and make a difference in the lives around us. We can focus on looking out for others as much as we look out for ourselves. We can try our hardest to do the right thing, even when it’s the hardest thing. 

It’s a heartbreaking realization to look into the eyes of an impoverished Nicaraguan teen, knowing full well that they would give anything to get on board that plane home to America with you. It’s even more heartbreaking to know that millions of the blessed recipients of America’s bounty have no idea what they really have. There’s something we can change right there, one life at a time. 

But it takes guts to do that. An attitude of general thankfulness is definitely not the status quo in our society today. On the contrary, we live in a country that now promotes a self-centered and materialistic approach to everything, one that leap-frogs right over the Thanksgiving holiday to get right to the commercial-driven chaos of Christmas. I’ve tried to go against it, and believe me, I’ve failed on plenty of occasions. But I want to keep trying. And I believe the rest of these RMU students want to as well.

So the potential is certainly there. What happens next remains to be seen.

The lights on 7East are coming on now. A new day will be beginning soon. Thanksgiving Day is here, but as we all know, hospitals are never closed on holidays. The doctors will start arriving before the sun peaks up with fresh orders for the nursing staff. Patients will start waking up, needing pain pills and breakfast trays and many other things. So before I conclude this final blog on this Thanksgiving morning, I want wrap all these random thoughts up with a little tradition of mine. Like many of you, I like to take a few minutes every year to jot down just some of my many blessings. Here's what's on my list this year...

I'm thankful for my job at this amazing medical facility…

...because there is not a hospital that comes close to it anywhere in Nicaragua.

I'm thankful for my beautiful mansion of a house…


...because many people have just sheet metal roof to live under and nothing else.

I’m thankful for that big front door on my house that opens wide...

…because some people just have the back end of crib. 

I’m thankful for the bottomless stores of our pantry...

...because many people are down to the bottom of their last bag of rice. 

I’m thankful for my family at home….

…and my family abroad.

I’m thankful for people in my life like this man...

…a man who has given his life to teaching in the hope that his students will use what they learn to go make a difference, one life at a time. 

And most of all, more than anything, I’m thankful to the Lord, the Father of lights and Giver of all good things, who does not forsake the hope of even the least among us. I know this to be true, for I’ve met some of these least. And of all the fascinating things I’ve seen in that endless sea of tired faces, there is one thing that surprises me most. 

They hold fast to their faith.

Like David wrote in the Psalms, they continue to call out to the God who gave them life. For some, that's the only hope that they have. But it is enough. 

"I will lift my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth."

So with that as our prayer, let each of us be thankful, for everything that we have, both today and always.

God bless you all on this Thanksgiving Day.

- Lee