I remember pitching the story idea in the fall of 1999, shortly after my father died on Sept. 11 that year.
In his final week or so as he slipped away from life my dad was in a room in St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. The entire family took turns staying with him in that room. I volunteered for the overnight shift, spending nights with him in a room.
He had lung cancer and congestive heart disease and was, as I recall, rarely conscious. What struck me as I sat by his bed was the care and attention the nurses displayed on a stranger and his family.
Sometime after I returned to work in the sports department of the Fort Myers News-Press I suggested a story on nurses who worked overnight shifts in hospitals. It would not be for the sports section.
What was it like working that shift? Could we spend a night with the nurses? What would we see and hear?
The editors liked the idea. Lee Memorial Hospital, which is now called Lee Health, approved the idea of a reporter and photographer hanging out all night in their big building on Cleveland Avenue just south of downtown. Photographer Andrew West and I were assigned to the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift one night that fall.
I heard plaintive cries for help in the night. I met a woman who drank 20 cups of coffee a day. I chatted with a leukemia patient in his room.
My story was a 1A centerpiece on Sunday, Dec. 5, 1999.
This was the main headline in perhaps 42-point type: “Angels of Mercy.”
Here are the first few inches of that story:
Nurse Kris Kuhn finished her leftover Wendy’s chili at about 2 a.m. and tossed the empty yellow container into a trash bin in a third-floor break room at Lee Memorial Hospital.
She left the break room, plunging back into her job.
“Help! Help! Help!” a 94-year-old man screamed, seeking assistance from Kuhn. Or somebody. Anybody.
“I’m right here, sweetie,” Kuhn said, hurrying into his room.
“What are you going to do about me?” the man shouted.
He was distressed, lost in a dizzying, disoriented dementia. Hard of hearing, the patient shouted everything. While lying in a bed, he thought he was upright in a chair.
“I’m a goner!” he yelled.
“You’re not a goner,” Kuhn said, trying to ease the lonely terror gripping the patient in the tenth decade of his life.
Kuhn was in the middle of a 12-hour shift, laboring on medicine’s front lines.
Kuhn and other nurses are the soldiers in the medical trenches, fighting disease, trying to hold back death and despair, working with doctors and patients.
I haven’t forgotten that night, not even after nearly 20 years. I still think back to the 12 hours I spent in Lee Memorial and what I heard and witnessed.
My Sunday story jumped to Page 10A. The story might have been 60-to-70 inches. I also did three sidebar profiles of nurses that took up, along with Andrew’s photos, all of pages 8A and 9A.
I met a leukemia patient that night named Russell James. He was spending his 28th consecutive night in the oncology ward and welcomed the opportunity to chat with a reporter.
He wound up spending 37 nights in the hospital before being released.
I spent the night talking to nurses such as Laura Devault and patients. I won’t include every detail in this blog post because it would be way too long.
Here is another story snippet:
Nursing is hands-on, face-to-face work. It’s not a job for the squeamish. It’s bathing strangers, changing diapers and inserting catheters. It’s spending most of a 12-hour shift on your feet. It’s administering pain medication and easing fears.
At about 1 a.m. Devault hovered over the bed of 66-year-old Joyce McFall, who was just admitted with heart problems.
“Felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest,” McFall told Devault.
McFall said she drinks 20 cups of coffee. The number amazed Devault.
“You have 20 cups a day?” Devault asked.
“Near that,” McFall said.
Devault stood by the bed, filling out a form.
“Do you have living will?” Devault asked.
“I do,” McFall said. “It’s at home.”
I ended the story with this quote from Florence Nightingale:
“Nursing is an art. And if it is to be made an art, it requires as exclusive a devotion, as hard a preparation as any painter’s or sculptor’s work: for what is the having to do with dead canvas or cold marble, compared with having to do with the living body – the temple of God’s spirit?”
I ended one of the three profiles of nurses in the sidebar package with a quote from nurse Laura Devault. I asked her what keeps her coming back to work overnight shifts with cancer patients, many of whom will die.
“The reward that I get every morning when I leave is having someone say to me, ‘Are you working tonight?’ And I say, ‘Yes.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad. That’s all I need. It makes me very happy.”
Now, 19 years since my only overnight shift with Laura and other nurses I wonder how they’re doing. And I still marvel at all those nurses, the ones in St. Pete who took care of my dad and the ones in Fort Myers I met on a fall night long ago taking care of strangers.