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Life Is Short, Buy The Damn Piano

03/02/2013 08:08 am ET | Updated May 02, 2013

I am typically a carpe-diem kind of gal, with an obsessive need for adventure and adrenaline rushes. When an opportunity presents itself, I grab it. It should come as no surprise that after my mother passed away, I said no-thank-you to months of sobbing in bed with gallons of Ben & Jerry's ice cream to comfort me. Instead, I got a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand and set off on an adventure, my father and brother in tow.

Two weeks ago, which was four years after my mother's passing, my dad suggested that we head over to Maui for whale season. The trip had been an annual family ritual during the years that my mom was sick. I considered my dad's proposal, but quickly declined the offer. I am a busy, busy woman. I have clients who need me and a bank account that needs my clients. In addition, I am in a long-distance relationship that already has me leaving town more frequently than is prudent. Going to Maui simply was not the responsible thing to do.

Three days later, I got a call advising me that one of my dearest clients had suffered a heart attack. My head spun, as I recalled similar calls years earlier -- one informing me that my mom's cancer had metastasized and another telling me that my dad had a heart attack. Life, as they say, is short, and you never know when your loved ones or you will go.

I got mad at myself. How dare I decline a proposal to spend a week with my brother and father on a tropical island -- free diving, kayaking, relaxing and living life. My clients always have understood when I have taken off work, and my bank account always has sustained my bills. So what was my problem? I purchased three round-trip tickets to Maui that afternoon.

Two days later, while at an airport terminal en route to my boyfriend, I began reading Critical Care by Theresa Brown. The book appeared to be practical -- a memoir of the ins and outs of a nurse's daily routine. As it turned out, the book was a gripping read and emotional trip down memory lane, diving me head-first into a nurse's first year in an oncology ward.

English professor-turned-oncology nurse, Brown is candid about the realities of caring for sick and dying individuals. She shares the difficulties of modern medical treatments, the challenges of fulfilling the role of "nurse" without losing one's humanity, the emotional distress of losing patients (especially those expected to pull through) and the not-so-pretty elements of a nurse's work, such as those described in the chapter, "Doctors Don't Do Poop."

Society maintains a collective fantasy that nurses are angelic individuals, floating through hospital wards in pretty white scrubs -- as portrayed in movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. True, to become a nurse, one must have at least a little bit of angel inside, but more importantly, nurses are real human beings with a critical job to do, and it ain't always a pretty one. Cardiac arrests, angry patients, uncontrolled bowel movements and chaotic schedules are par for the course.

As I read Critical Care, I found myself relating to many of the real-life characters in the book -- medical personnel, hospital administrators, patients and visiting family members alike. From the anecdotes to the emotions surrounding those anecdotes, everything was so familiar that I had to fight back the tears -- all the while casting furtive glances around the airport terminal, ensuring that nobody caught me sniffling.

Emotions run high in hospitals, especially in oncology wards. As my mother's caregiver, I was perhaps overly-protective of "the patient" at times. Those micro-managing moments led to my share of run-ins with nurses, with me demanding attention for my mother -- "Right! Now!" Although I may have know it at the time, the book helps reiterate that the nurses were not necessarily ignoring my mother or treating her as a less-important patient. Most likely, they were prioritizing the most urgent-care situations, as part of their never-ending act of balancing competing needs among the sick and dying.

Critical Care is an eye-opener and, as such, an important book for anyone involved in the medical journey. After reading it, doctors may treat nurses with more respect and compassion; patients and caregivers may offer nurses more understanding and patience; and nursing students may have a more realistic sense of the path up ahead and a better idea if they are truly cut out for the nursing role.

"True war story cannot be believed, because 'often the crazy stuff is true, and the normal stuff isn't,'" Brown states, quoting Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried. Many of us experience illness similar to how we perceive military battle, thus we collectively speak about "the war against cancer," "the war on pain" and so on. Critical Care demonstrates just how crazy these war zones can become, while humanizing the journey of those caught up in the battle. And so the book is a riveting read throughout.

It is the conclusion, however, that touched me the most.

Having dedicated herself to caring for others, and having watched many patients die, Brown reflects on what it means to live. To this end, she tells the story of when her husband inherited money. At first, the couple did "the responsible" thing: They paid off bills, added a cushion to the savings account and repainted the trim on their house. Then, however, Brown went straight for the heart -- encouraging her husband, a "serious amateur pianist," to purchase a piano. Months prior, Brown admits, she may not have suggested or approved the purchase. Being a nurse in an oncology ward, however, had transformed her outlook on life.

With this conclusion, Critical Care encourages us to consider what brings us the most joy, then go out there and grab it: Make the career change, ask the cutie out, write the book or go on the impulsive trip. Life is short. Buy the damn piano.

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