A Fairy Tale Journey Through Critical Care

by Olive Hackett-Shaughnessy.

As fate would have it, a year from the day that my eldest daughter went into fulminant liver failure, I was standing in front an audience at a conference for The American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

Looking into the faces of this group of healers who know life and death as the landscape of their daily lives, my knees trembled and my heart swelled. Would I have the courage to share such an intimate story among strangers? And how dare I bring the same fairy tales that I share with children and educators to adults who face real crisis with a depth and scope of medical knowledge that is beyond my comprehension?

With a leap of faith which felt like jumping off a cliff, I began interweaving the real story of being at my daughter’s bedside in the ICU with traditional fairy and folk tales. Baba Yaga from Russia, a mountain god from China and a wee little creature who sleeps in a walnut shell had been soul guides for me. Perhaps sharing these stories would be of service to nurses?

Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The opportunity to see a medical emergency “from the other side of the bed”, as one nurse expressed it, provided professionally valuable insights relating to the affective quality of care. How the act of listening to and sharing personal stories during patient visits could relieve fears and strengthen courage mattered too. But what touched me the most and what I ought to have trusted all along was that caregivers have a great hunger for stories. One woman said, “I have come to so many conferences like this, but it is rare for someone to understand what we do from the heart. Thank you.”

What follows is the text of a handout which the nurses received as they entered the conference room for a presentation entitled: “A Fairy Tale Journey Through Critical Care: A Storyteller’s View”.

“When the fairy tale fits, it falls over your face like a mask.” Eleanor Kokar Ott-Folklorist

Fairy tales may not be real, but they are true. In the olden days they were told to adults because life was hard and in the magical delight and adventure of a welltold tale there was care for the soul. One meaning of “they all lived happily ever after” is that no matter what fate throws in our path, there is always hope. When I discovered that the words fairy, fate, and faith share the same Latin root, “fay”, the deep wisdom I find in fairy tales was affirmed. Pause a moment with this new meaning. Fairy tale becomes “Fate Story.”

One year ago I wrote an essay describing my first glimpse of an empty nest. My third child set off for college on September 20. I was home alone for the first time in twenty-three years. I believed my “fate story” was beginning a new chapter in which I, the main character, would discover a daily life without the tender attachments, nor demanding, exhausting responsibilities of single parenthood. I wrote, “I am hysterical with freedom”. Anything was possible.

On October 6, I returned from a trip to hear a message on my answering machine from her father. “Megan has hepatitis. She wants you to call.”

Our twenty-three year old daughter lived in Southern California, had two jobs and was going to graduate school. My first-born. My dream come true. A woman. My child. Her voice quavered on the phone, “Mama, I don’t feel good.”

Cinderella’s mother is suddenly ill and then dies. Snow White’s stepmother hears unwanted truth in the mirror. She becomes murderous with envy. Sleeping Beauty, by merely turning fifteen, falls into a curse she never knew was made in her name. The lives of three famous fairy tale daughters changed in an instant. My daughter’s life changed too.

Life as we expected it to be became something else entirely. A journey with an unknown destination had begun. We were thrust into dangers. We were at the mercy of strangers.

Our deep, dark, dangerous forest was an Intensive Care Unit where my daughter got sicker and sicker and sicker until at the threshold of death, the miracle of a liver, which is a gift of life from death, was offered on November 22. There was one successful surgery. Then another necessary one and she was home before Christmas.

Today she wears her Mercedes incision as a priceless, beautiful jewel. Today, if asked, she might say that her life is richer for having taken such a difficult journey.

I cannot tell my daughter’s story. It belongs to her. But I can tell my own; the Fate Story of the mother who was witness, companion and advocate during a crisis that broke my heart often, terrified me regularly and allowed me to be among those who heal by wits, by skills, by training, by instinct, by practice, by humor, by faith, by teamwork, by fury, by determination and by grace.

Through this whole true story, nurses have been the guides, the support and the bridge between worlds for me. Thrown together by fate, deep trust was required.

The wisdom within old stories also helped me find meaning in crisis. I told stories to my daughter in the ICU and sometimes to doctors and nurses too. I thought I was simply distracting her from her pain and fear, but I learned that the stories were healing for us all. Today, with deep respect and gratitude, I offer them to you. May they be good medicine.

Article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 7, Spring 2002


Olive Hackett-Shaughnessy lives in San Francisco and has been a professional storyteller and curriculum consultant since 1986. Her recent experience as the mother of a child who received a successful liver transplant inspired her to focus her attention on nurses in the belief that storytelling can bring them meaningful perspective and comfort. For more information you may contact her at: OHStory@aol.com


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