The gift of mentorship

High school. It’s one of those times in life that you either loved or hated. My four years in educational prison were manageable, but only because there was a handful of teachers that made it less torturous through their ability to connect with students. For me, one of these teachers was Mr. S. He taught our school’s ceramic and jewelry classes. I have always been an artsy type and I was good at sculpting weird faces and textures into blobs of mud. Mr. S. let me come after school, use his supplies, and work on extra projects. I felt like I belonged when I was in his classroom. Most of the kids that Mr. S took under his wing were the ones who didn’t quite fit in: we were shy, or weird, and we weren’t cheerleaders. (I was the shy/weird type.) He had a knack for connecting with the students that needed a little extra love, but he always greeted everyone with the same crinkly-eyed grin. He was one of those adults from my teenage world that I will always consider a mentor because he made me feel like I mattered during a time of life that is saturated with the opposite message.

Fast forward a decade or so later. I had graduated as a nurse, and I was working in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) on the night shift. I strolled into my “pod” to get report from the day shift nurse on my patient for the night, triple-shot coffee in hand, and stopped in my tracks. I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. Peering into the closest isolette, the blue hue of the phototherapy lights throwing eerie shadows onto his solemn face, was Mr. S. I greeted him with excitement, “Mr. S.?! Holy cow, do you remember me? I was in your ceramics classes and won first place in the art show a few times! You were my favorite! Wait….you had a daughter and she and I were friends! How is she?” He answered my barrage of questions with that same smile he had for me back in tenth grade. “Of course I remember you….and this is my daughter’s baby!” He gestured proudly to the premature baby inside the isolette and threw a hug around my shoulders. I glanced at the assignment board and realized that I had his grandbaby for the night. His daughter came to the unit after report and burst into tears with relief; she knew and trusted the nurse who was taking care of her fragile baby. I immediately became his “primary nurse” and was assigned to care for him every time I came to work. I fell head-over-heels in love with that fiesty boy. He had an adventurous time in the NICU. We tell parents that a NICU stay is like a roller coaster ride, with ups and downs. His stay was the Space Mountain of roller coaster rides. We celebrated when he no longer needed a breathing tube. I then cried with Mom when we had to put it back in because his lungs weren’t quite strong enough to carry him yet. I placed a comforting hand over his tiny body and we laughed at his miniature fury when the steroids he was on gave him “roid rage”. I puffed breaths back into his lungs when he became tired and stopped breathing. I became fiercely protective of him as his mom, dad, grandparents, and other siblings became like family. He had heart surgery to close a hole in his heart. He came off major respiratory support. His scrawny bird legs developed into plump rolls as he grew, and we cheered as he took his first bottle. We threw a party when he finally discharged from the hospital six months later, a chubby, healthy baby. His mom sent me weekly pictures and updates from home. And then she broke the news: she wanted to go to nursing school. She wanted to be a nurse after what she had seen in the months that her little guy was in the hospital. I encouraged her through clinicals and was thrilled when she passed her boards. She told me that she was looking for a new grad job, hopefully in the NICU, but wasn’t sure if anyone was hiring.

A few weeks later I came to work, coffee in hand, and glanced at the report board. I occasionally signed up to precept new employees, and that night there was an extra name written next to mine. It was Mr. S.’s daughter, my little primary baby’s mom. I would be her mentor for the night in the same unit where we had watched her son fight to live for the better part of a year. I taught her how to calm a distressed 600-gram baby with just the placement of a warm hand over its body, how to suction its breathing tube, and how to talk to parents about the roller coaster ride that was a NICU stay. She has now been a nurse for years and has even oriented me to another hospital when I took a second job where she was working another job. She is an incredible nurse, full of compassion and empathy for her patients and families. She has walked their path before and understands.

Mentorship is not a static act. It keeps moving like kinetic energy, initiated by one person who decides, intentionally or not, that they are going to make a difference in another person’s life. Because of her father’s kindness to me, I also played the part of a mentor for Mr. S’s daughter and taught her how to care for the vulnerable little humans with the same attention that I showed to her baby. This cycle will continue – as a result of my mentorship to Mr. S.’s daughter, she will now influence the lives of countless babies in the future, as she puffs life back into tiny lungs, comforts terrified new mamas and their babies, and makes connections with families that will change their lives forever.

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