A few of my nursing friends and I were headed to Carowinds, an amusement park in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a day of fun when I first saw the yellow and blue monstrosity from route I-77. My co-workers informed me that I was seeing “The Fury 325”—one of the world’s longest, tallest and fastest “gigacoasters”. As the name suggests, its passengers reach heights of 325 feet as well as over 1 mile of terror at speeds up to 95 MPH.
I let my friends know then and there that although I’m super-fun, I would NOT be setting foot on that particular ride.
They, in turn, informed me that I most certainly WOULD be riding The Fury, specifically within the half hour.
As we parked and walked to the entrance of the theme park, I began to educate my friends on why it was unsound for me to ride this coaster at this juncture in my life. I have bad sinuses and am sensitive to changes in barometric pressure and heights. I also have low blood pressure; it was quite hot outside, and I may not have been adequately hydrated. “Well, good thing there’s a water fountain right over there,” said Lisa, as she gently shoved me through the turnstile into the park.
While I took a long cold drink from the fountain adjacent to The Fury, I thought perhaps my friends were right. I really did just have my annual physical and receive a clean bill of health the week before, and who knows when I would have another opportunity to come to Carowinds. Plus, I knew that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself by doing things I fear.
I agreed to at least get in the line for the ride, but reserved my right to opt out at the last minute. Fortunately, the line was short and within a few minutes I found myself strapped in between Ellie and Lisa. So far so good, I thought.
Then we started moving—straight up—for a very unreasonable amount of time. As the click, click, click of ascension continued, I began to feel sick with fear. “This is not a sound decision,” I thought. I envisioned the scenario of this ride malfunctioning and my friends and I dying in a horrible manner. I envisioned the ride not malfunctioning, but me dying anyway, a victim of heart attack. What a foolish risk to take! I thought of my family, carrying on without me because I was trying to be cool.
I was really starting to panic when my friend Ellie looked at me and said with full authority “Look, I’ve done this before and we will get through this together.” I released the metal bar I was clenching and clutched her arm instead. I don’t know how she did it, but she seemed to assume a portion of my misery and I was astounded by the reduction in fear it produced. I knew Ellie could not help me should the ride malfunction. She could not physically restrain me from falling should my seatbelt fail. She couldn’t intervene mid-ride if my heart stopped due to terror. I knew these things intellectually, but it just didn’t matter. What she offered was enough to see me through.
I focused on my connection with Ellie and the feel of her arm. I took some deep breaths and closed my eyes as the coaster finally began its 325-foot near-vertical descension. I kept my eyes closed and squeezed her arm tighter and tighter as the ride took us on twists and loops and free-falls at 95 MPH speeds. I never once peeked or let go of Ellie as I endured the ride.
Finally we stopped and to my surprise, I was still very much alive! I apologized to my friend for the marks on her arm as we did our post-ride debriefing. Everyone (except me) thought it was great fun! I was elated: Not only was I alive, but I was proud that I had done something I feared.
While we gathered up our belongings I had a realization: What Ellie had just done successfully was what we nurses strive to do each day. She absorbed a portion of my pain and gave me her allegiance. She did not say, “I promise this ride will not malfunction.” She did not say, “Nothing bad will happen to you.” She did not claim mastery over the physics at hand. She said only, “I’ve done this before and we will get through this together.”
In the past I have often felt inadequate in comforting my patients and their families. After all, I cannot promise them that everything will work out the way they are hoping. I cannot say that there is nothing to fear here in this hospital room. I cannot even honestly say I know exactly what awaits us when this life ends.
But now I can see what I can and do offer: My concern. My allegiance. My best efforts and my arm (or hand). And I now know what I will say going forward: “I have done this before, and we will get through this together.”
Elaine Thielen works at Cone Health in Greensboro, North Carolina.