My Heart Outside My Body

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Doulas of Los Angeles is committed to creating and continuing strong relationships between care teams and client families. We believe that everyone has a voice and a story, and those stories deserve to be heard. This guest article comes to us from nurse Kelsey Vandersteen. It is real and unedited; it contains the components of life and death. We invite you to share a glimpse into the world in which we work; as doulas, nurses, doctors, midwives, therapists . . . humans.

Kelsey Vandersteen

I work in a Trauma ICU and I can’t stop thinking about what I went through on Friday. Just like I’ve done one hundred times before, I held a young patient’s hand while we withdrew care and they passed away. We have to stay in the rooms throughout the passing in order to administer the pain medication and anti-anxiety medication and to ensure they are comfortable and calm in their final moments.

These scenarios and these patients are always hard on our hearts as nurses, always heavy and difficult and awkward and isolating as we can’t talk about them with anyone else and we are, to some extent, expected to carry these painful and intense moments without being able to share their weight. This time, however, felt even more profound. This patient was my first withdrawal of care since becoming a mom and it was as though I were seeing it through new eyes. This time I couldn’t stop the flood of emotions as I watched her family say their final goodbyes. Her dad came over and kissed her forehead, her brother stepped up and rubbed her arm, her husband kissed her fingers one by one and tearfully said his farewells….and then her mom stepped over.

This heartbroken, grief-stricken, absolutely shattered mother took the young woman’s face in her trembling hands and held it, soaking in her daughter’s beautiful serene face one last time and she wept. Her tears fell from her chin, landing on her daughter’s calm face and running down into her pillow. The mother kissed her daughter’s forehead, her cheeks, her temples, her jawline, her entire face was covered in slow, intentional, deep, long kisses. The kind of kisses a mother has given her child hundreds of times, before nap times, before bedtimes, before summer camp, on first days of school, after nightmares, after skinned knees.

They are kisses that say “I love you”, “You mean the world to me”, “You are my heart, outside my body” and “I would do anything to keep you safe.” They are not rushed, they are not forced, they are not routine or automatic or without intention…they are the only way a mother knows how to tell a child even a fraction of how deeply they are loved.

As we increased the pain medications and removed the interventions keeping the patient alive, the monitor showed us as the woman slipped on to her next life and her soul was free from the painful, broken, suffering existence she had known here. Her mother clutched both of her daughter’s hands in her own, rested her head on her daughter’s now still chest and wailed.

There is a cry a mother makes when she loses her child that I have heard so many times it is ingrained in my soul. Husbands don’t make this sound, wives don’t cry like this, even fathers don’t wail with this out of body gut wrenching vulnerability. It is, without a doubt, the sound a mother’s heart makes when it breaks. I stood beside the bed, not wanting to intrude on this moment, not wanting to break this bond they still so clearly shared, and I silently wept along with her.

Tears dripped off my chin, soaking into my scrub top and I ached for my little girl, miles away at daycare, oblivious to the evils and pains of the world. I ached for her innocence, her hope, her optimism, all the beauty the world had yet to show her and all the loss she would, undoubtedly, see in her lifetime.

Being a mother changes everything. It changes your marriage, your job, your priorities, your goals, your hopes, your dreams, your successes and your failures. It changes you to your core in ways you could never anticipate or ever articulate. I came home on Friday night after this shift and I held my little girl. I slowly, inch by precious inch, covered her tiny beautiful face in kisses. I rocked her tight against my chest and in a way only a mother can tell her child, each kiss said “I love you”, “You mean the world to me”, “You are my heart, outside my body” and “I would do anything to keep you safe.”

Life is beautiful but tragic. Hold your little ones close and cover them in kisses.

Kelsey Vandersteen is a nurse and a mother, she enjoys volleyball and running and has a dog and a husband that she adores!