Adam Bohan, S.J.May 12, 2021
Photo by Luma Pimentel on Unsplash.

I squinted through a small, anvil-shaped break in the condensation of my patient’s incubator. Each time I did so his hairless brow seemed to curl in a cringe of pain, and his heartbeat bounced from his chest. Nearly the size of a stick of butter, this preemie, conceived only 22 weeks ago, laid before me battling humanity’s “thrownness” into the world.

Not every shift is as wrenching. When I walk into the neonatal intensive care unit for a 12-hour night shift, there are any number of ways I can picture the time passing. Many nights I am privileged to feed, cuddle and care for babies born only a few weeks earlier than expected. In the stillness and quiet of such nights, when I can sing a healthy baby to sleep with a psalm, I am entirely gratified.

Then, there are nights that are more frightening, more adrenaline-ridden, when my prayer is not a soft psalm but instead a demanding and rapid series of voiceless Hail Marys. That is the kind of night it is when you care for a baby born at just 22 weeks. That is when my philosophical training as a Jesuit comes in handy.

On such nights when mortality is more obvious, and both my patient and my patience are frail, I maintain an even keel by calling upon the wisdom of Aristotle, Aquinas and their confrères. There have been several nights in my short nursing career when that wisdom has rung true, but that particular shift, peering through the condensation, stands apart from the rest.

In his little face, I saw the virtue of courage made flesh.

The infant toiled against the odds of his own life with choice ammunition: dignity and a will to live. He fought against what medicine calls the “age of viability,” a thinly and hazily perceived tightrope upon which some of the most difficult decisions about life are made. The threshold at which medicine deems human life viable is often set at a mere 24 weeks. Shy by two weeks, against hope he believed in hope.

The expression on his face was scrunched and stoic, the sort of scene Seneca alluded to when he said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” The boy’s suffering, albeit tenacious and tragic, was purposeful. And his willingness to bear what his humanity had imposed on him was humbling. As I gathered from the depths of my compassion and heard the humming of medical machines, a steel resolution arose within me to learn from his fortitude.

In his little face, I saw the virtue of courage made flesh.

This baby’s underdeveloped eyes were fused shut. Every ounce of him was blanketed in a profuse purple bruising; so delicate, his skin was unprepared for the blunt blow of birth into the harsh reality of life. At any rate, his stable vital signs signaled that his will was set on sustaining life against likeliness.

Between two and three o’clock in the morning, the father of the infant arrived at the bedside to meet his son. In that encounter, I learned that the infant had the ability to teach the virtue of courage, too.

My patients put faces to virtue ethics.

To meet him meant to face fear and to grow in goodness.

It took courage to look courage itself in the face.

When the boy’s horrified father stepped up to the bedside, the scene was akin to watching Coulomb’s law of magnetism in action. There was a sputter of repulsion before the attraction. Any cowardice in the room yielded its negative charge to the infant’s positive courage. His father made nervous conversation with me as I cleared the humidity from the incubator wall. Then, another nurse invited him to touch his son for the first time.

A tense pause followed.

Quickly, he found the bravery to surrender and put a gentle, little finger to his child’s even smaller arm. Though the man stood with his feet planted, he gasped as if the floor had fallen out from underneath him. Caught by grace, his face became like his son’s, scrunched and full of courage.

I had never been more convinced of humanity’s potential for greatness than when I saw the freshly opened eyes of the smallest patient ever in my care.

At that time, it was still too early to tell whether the infant had a fighting chance. The first few days under such circumstances are typically tumultuous. It would not be unexpected for the baby to suffer an intraventricular hemorrhage, a brain bleed resulting from the birthing process. At any moment, one of his essential infantile organs could yet prove too immature.

This was my final shift in a series of night shifts before time off. I did not know if I would see my patient when I returned to the hospital nearly a week later. After peeking into his incubator another time, I entrusted him to the good hands of his Creator and those of my colleagues.

With beds turned over, the week went by and I returned to find that his odds of flourishing had improved. I had never been more convinced of humanity’s potential for greatness than when I saw the freshly opened eyes of the smallest patient ever in my care. Not only had he survived, but in such a short time he was ready to thrive.

The lessons I learn from nursing make some of my previous philosophical ponderings charmingly basic. My patients put faces to virtue ethics. They answer for me some of the grander questions about why and for what we were made. They show me that we are made good. They remind me that the point of our existence is to be in awe of existence and that our body and soul, matter and form are given to us not as something owed but as a gift freely granted.

Even on those nights when I walk into the hospital for a shift more challenging than bottle feeding and cuddling, I am entirely gratified—as much in those nights as in the still and quiet ones.

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