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Nurses Week 2014, now under way, has special significance for me as it also commemorates my 40th year as a registered nurse. I began my journey toward a nursing career at the age of 14, when I donned the red-and-white jumper of a “candy striper” and slipped my feet into my very first pair of white duty shoes. At the age of 16, my enthusiasm as a volunteer landed my first real job as a nurse’s aide. By high school graduation, the decision to go to nursing school was as natural as taking my next breath.

I clearly recall how happy and proud I felt at my capping ceremony, standing on stage in Kleinhans, reciting the Florence Nightingale pledge and holding the “Lamp of Learning.” I learned that this lamp would continue to burn throughout my career. Graduating and passing state boards does not end your education, but marks a new beginning of lifelong learning.

Thirty-three years as a pediatric nurse taught me to listen intently to a mother’s concerns and to carefully observe a child who is unable to communicate what he or she is feeling. It taught me not to judge a parent’s reaction to a seemingly minor illness or injury. Becoming a mother myself helped to sharpen my vision and to soften my heart.

As a graduate nurse in pediatrics I fell in love with my first patient, a 7-year-old boy with end-stage kidney disease. Bobby knew he was dying and wanted nothing more than to see his little dog, Mr. Bo Jangles. This was before the era of pet therapy dogs, and four-legged, furry visitors were not allowed. So, in the still of the night, Mr. Bo Jangles was discretely smuggled upstairs concealed in a duffle bag. To cover all of my bases, I told the security guard I had a neurological disorder called Tourette syndrome, and sometimes I had the uncontrollable urge to bark like a dog. Even if I had been disciplined for orchestrating this happy reunion, it would have been well worth it. That memory is the only thing that got me through Bobby’s funeral. Sometimes, I learned, a nurse has to do what a nurse has to do.

Years later, as an emergency department nurse, a young woman came in clutching a tattered beach towel. Refusing to sign in, she wanted only to speak to me, the triage nurse. In the privacy of an exam room she opened the towel and revealed a brand new baby, only hours old. Unable to provide for the baby, she came to surrender her in a safe place.

As an adoptive mother myself, I held this young mother in my arms and allowed her to grieve openly for the child she would leave behind. Through my own tears, I reassured her that somewhere a woman was praying for a child, and today her prayers would be answered. In my nurse’s notes, I recorded every detail I could recall. Years from now, if this child comes to seek out the facts about her birthday, she will know she was surrendered, not abandoned; loved, not rejected. Sometimes, I learned, a nurse follows her heart even more than her head.

In my present role as an adult oncology nurse, I learned that the Lamp of Learning continues to burn. I learned well the value of life and how diligently one is willing to fight for it. I have learned the value of a smile, a kind word, a listening ear. I know clearly that life is not always fair and, yes, sometimes the good really do die young. I know that God is far more powerful than any chemotherapy drug and faith is a sure source of courage and strength.

It is only when I draw my very last breath that I will extinguish my Lamp of Learning.

Lynette Grandits, R.N., B.S.N., lives in Williamsville and works at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.