Thursday, April 28, 2011

To Russia With Love

Peter was a Communist.  They all were: everyone who walked into my hospital room during my “crazy phase”—that ten-day period in the ICU during which encephalopathy caused me to scream about brains marching up my bed, yell for someone to help all the babies that were trapped in bags all over the floor, and accuse anyone wearing a white lab coat of being a Communist spy with designs of performing experiments on me (they were obviously—according to my warped view of reality—trying to “steal my sperm and eggs for evil purposes”).

But Peter?  He even had the accent.  And every time he spoke with my family members (who for whatever reason I actually remembered were family members), they always laughed.  He was a comedic Communist, that Peter.

Weeks after the encephalopathy dissipated and I moved to a step-down unit, Peter still stopped by my room during his coffee breaks.  He would spend a few minutes with me, or chat with my mother and share a laugh with her.  In time, I came to realize that those visits were as important to Peter as they were to my family and me.  How often had Peter come to bond with a patient in the ICU only to see his or her body sent to the morgue after days, weeks of heroic effort to save them?  Visiting me was, perhaps, Peter’s way of reminding himself that happy endings were possible in the ICU.

Months after my discharge from the hospital, I sent Peter a gift and thanked him for all he’d done, not just for my well-being, but for my family’s.  His ability to help them find humor during the darkest days of my illness was a skill not likely taught in his nursing program.  But Peter instinctively understood and nurtured the need for laughter, for finding whatever joy was possible for the loved ones of the critically ill. 

It would be years before I’d reconnect with Peter online.  He had since moved to Russia—ironically—to work as a nurse practitioner for the Foreign Service.  After the usual “how’ve you been” and “thank you again for all you did for me” that accompanies reuniting with those who helped save your life, we launched a nice friendship.  Seeing that I was open to the Mystery (capital M intended) of life, Peter shared with me a dream he’d had while I was ill and not expected to live.  In it, he saw me laughing with my husband, and that confused him.  “Lauren!” he said to me in the dream, “this can’t be! I mean, you died!”  I laughed at him and replied, “Oh Peter, that was such a long time ago!” That dream—he told me—had provided him with the hope he needed to go back into work for another 18-hour shift and give me his all. And eventually, his all worked.

Peter also told me that he’d wanted so badly to donate blood for me while I was ill, but that his having thalassemia prevented him from doing so.  But that doesn’t stop him from helping other blood recipients today. Historically, the blood services in Moscow only accepted blood donations from Russians, but Peter was able to persuade them otherwise.  64 donors—only 12 of whom were Russian—turned out for the first-ever blood drive at Peter’s workplace.  The local media was all over the story, and the Embassy Moscow Blood Drive is now an annual event.

Peter was one of more than 80 nurses who worked hard to save my life in the ICU.  And while burnout led him to seek a calmer arena within healthcare, today he continues to save lives—more than he even knows. Most of the people who’ve been touched by Peter’s blood drive efforts won’t ever know that he was the driving force behind the life-saving blood they received.  They won’t track him down to say “thanks for saving my life.” But I know.  So here’s to Peter in Russia. With love. 

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

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