Nurse's dance leaves no time for lunch

Wednesday, July 8, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Annie Hamilton
In her green hospital scrubs and striped sneakers, Annie Hamilton dances all night to a serenade of beeps and chirps, buzzes and brrrrrrings. When an alarm sounds, she's on the move, dashing into a patient's room to check vital signs.

Alarms sound constantly for Annie and the other nurses working the evening shift at University Hospital's Medical Intensive Care Unit.

All that noise and the attention it demands make for a hectic half-hour when Annie ducks into the unit's conference room for her solitary 8 p.m. lunch break.

"You can't relax," she said. "You're always listening for alarms. When you eat, you just throw it down and go."

She adjusted the stethoscope around her neck. Making a place mat and plate from paper towels, she took a bite of her brown-bagged turkey and red pepper sandwich to begin another "Lunch with Cliff." That's where I treat and people tell me what's on their minds.

A petite 5-foot-1, Annie has been a nurse for 19 years, 14 in intensive care.

She knows the hospital lunch routine. Eat fast. Talk a little (if someone wanders in). Think a lot. Never plan on any uninterrupted time.

When I asked how long she usually eats before she hears an alarm, she answered with two questions.

"Hear that alarm?" she asked. "How long have I been eating?" And she ran from the room.

Her questions lingered in the air, mingling with the eerie hum of a ventilator alarm signaling that someone was having trouble breathing.

Minutes later, Annie was back.

"Five minutes," she said, as she washed her hands. "That's as long as I ever get to eat before I hear an alarm."

She laughed to herself. "These alarms are like my kids at home," she said. "They know when you sit down, that's when they go off. Then when you get up, they stop."

Annie nervously glanced at her watch. Seconds were ticking from her lunch break. She had barely touched her sandwich and had not even opened her bag of mini-pretzels.

To save time, she started combining them, laying pretzels inside the sandwich.

"I read in a magazine where red peppers have the most nutrients of any fruit or vegetable you can eat," she said as she rebuilt her sandwich. "At a hospital, you need all the nutrition you can get." Between bites and beeps, Annie talked a bit about her family. She wondered how her husband, Ron, an emergency room nurse at the Christ Hospital, and their daughters, 10-year-old Tess and 5-year-old Bridget, were doing. The couple's work schedules, Annie said, require "lots of parenting by phone."

But most nights, her lunchtime thoughts are strictly job-related. As the wife and the daughter of a nurse, she sees her profession as the art of healing.

"Nursing is like dancing," Annie said. "You express something in a physical way. You can't write it down, you can only convey it in an action or a touch."

She reached out her right arm and swept it through the air. Her hand came to a stop and her fingers patted an unseen patient.

In this dance, the right moves can be as simple as giving patients their medicine on time. They can also be as complex as gathering doctors, nurses and family members together and getting them to agree on how to treat a patient.

"These are the things you do," Annie said, "to help tilt the world a little bit toward the positive direction."

Her words were disturbed by the loudest alarm in intensive care. "That EEE-OOO, EEE-OOO sound is horrible," Annie warned. "It means someone's life is in danger."

Tossing her paper-towel place mat into the garbage, she called over her shoulder as she left the room.

"Lunch is over. My patient needs me."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.