What Power Do I Have?: A Nursing Student’s Concerns Lead to a Passion for Ethics
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What Power Do I Have?
A Nursing Student’s Concerns Lead to a Passion for Ethics

The day began like many in our ten–week rotation, around the large table in the brightly lit ICCU nurses’ station. Report, which was given by the night charge nurse, included information on all the patients on the unit. Since I had cared for A. G. the previous day, I was eager to know how she had spent the night. She had a debilitating neuro–muscular disease known as myasthenia gravis. Placed on the ventilator days before, it was reported that she was likely to be dependent on the machine for life. In the late 1970’s there were very few facilities that accepted ventilator dependent patients. She might be with us for a long time.

When I entered her room for the first time, I saw a frail older woman with kind eyes and a warm smile. She was breathing with the help of the ventilator through her tracheostomy tube. I learned through her chart that she had no known family. On the day I took care of her, no one came to see her and she had no visitors the previous evening. She lived in a local long–term care facility and was brought to the hospital after she developed respiratory distress. A. G. was unable to move in the bed due to her condition and required frequent suctioning along with turning and repositioning for comfort.

Despite her weakness, A. G. was able to communicate silently by mouthing the words for what she wanted and by nodding and shaking her head. I found her to be quite skilled in non–verbal [End Page 93] communication since it took minimal effort to understand what she wanted, but the activity tired her easily. I had just completed A. G.’s morning care when her physician came in to examine her. After completing his assessment, he stopped and leaned in closely to speak with her. He began asking a number of questions about whether she wanted to spend the rest of her life in this way, on a ventilator. She shook her head. Continuing the line of questioning in different ways, she responded to him. I wondered why he was asking these questions. After seeing her response, the physician asked me to get 30 mg of morphine from the narcotics cabinet. Although I didn’t understand the implication of the request, I complied.

While I was retrieving the medication from the narcotics cabinet, the charge nurse came to tell me I was being reassigned to a new admission. When I asked why, she told me she couldn’t discuss it, but asked me to please do what she said. I left her standing there, wondering what was going on. After assisting with the new admission, I went back to see A.G.; her door was closed. When I opened the door, the ventilator tubing hung over the side of the machine. Looking down at the bed, I was shocked to find A.G. had been disconnected. She was dead. In a state of disbelief and panic, I sought out the charge nurse to find out what happened. It was clear that I was not to know. I asked her a number of questions but she adeptly changed the subject and redirected me to other activities. By then it was lunchtime and my instructor had left the unit. I asked to be excused and went to seek her out.

When I told my instructor what happened, a look of doubt came over her face. “You think Doctor M. killed your patient? That would never happen.” Although I tried to tell her the story, she too, dismissed me, telling me my story didn’t make sense. I was distraught. An overwhelming sense of dread came over me and I began to cry. She encouraged me to go home, which I did.

Happily, I had the weekend to recover before returning to clinical. I never found out what happened to A. G. and neither my instructor nor the charge nurse ever spoke to me about my experience. In fact, it seemed no one believed my story...


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