'I knew I had to help her be a mom': PICU nurse creates moments of motherhood amid loss
When Rachel Gage, RN, started in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) in 2014, she planned to stay there for only a year. The Wisconsin native figured she was merely passing through Iowa City.
Fast forward to 2023 and she’s still caring for some of our sickest pediatric patients.
“I thought I’d get experience and then go home to Wisconsin or go to Minnesota,” says Gage. “Now it’s been nine years. That really shows how much this hospital has done for me. And how much I believe in the care we provide.”
Her dedication to compassionate care was demonstrated in the words of a mother whose three-day-old baby died in the PICU.
“Rachel was the nurse for my son on the day he passed away,” the patient’s mother says. “That morning, she helped me see my son’s pupil so I could know what color his eyes were. She helped give him oral care before he passed. I am truly appreciative now of getting to have these memories with my son.”
For Gage, guiding parents to experience tender moments with their ailing child is always the point of her work.
“I felt like I connected with those parents. Each parent grieves differently, so you have to be receptive to that and give them what they need,” says Gage. “At that time, the mom needed to be a mom. He was hooked up to all these machines and sedated and very swollen. I was thinking, ‘How can I make her feel like a mom?’”
Gage finds community among her colleagues
Gage views the PICU as her home away from home. And her colleagues are like her family. Which is why she has remained on the unit with no desire to leave.
“Our team is so supportive of each other,” Gage says. “Not even just nurses to nurses—doctors to nurses, nurse practitioners to nurses. When we see a coworker having a hard day, we empathize with them. Sometimes people need space to process, and some people may need to talk about it.”
Among the most gratifying aspects of Gage’s job is mentoring her younger colleagues. By doing so, she feels like she’s “paying it forward.”
“When I started as a new grad, I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she says with a laugh. “My colleagues who had been here 30 years—and even the people who had just been here one year—helped me become the nurse that I am. Now that I’ve been here awhile, I feel I can help the people who just started. That gives me gratification, seeing that lightbulb go on when I can help a newer nurse figure something out.”
Compassionate care helps the highs outnumber the lows
Gage is particularly grateful for the support of her unit for the tough days when a patient might not be recovering as well as they had hoped. Still, she says, the highs outnumber the lows. In fact, those highs are what help to keep Gage so engaged in her work.
“I remember the moments when kids pass away and I have to help these parents deal with the worst day of their lives,” Gage says. “But I also remember the highs. Like, kids who come in with heart failure, and then I see them walking out of the hospital or I see them at Target after they’ve been released. That makes it worthwhile. It’s an up-and-down job. But those core memories of highs are really what makes it.”
They’re a big part of why she returns so enthusiastically to the PICU day after day.
“There’s a reason I’ve stayed here for nine years,” Gage says. “The PICU has been my first and only home.”