The Science of Medicine

Most of us can't imagine what it was like nursing in a cardiac ward before the development of routine bypass surgeries and other life-saving cardiac procedures.

The death of Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, the cardiovascular surgeon who pioneered procedures such as bypass surgeries, sent a ripple through both the general public and healthcare professionals. Even at the age of 99, it almost seemed as if it wasn’t time for this inventor of numerous life-saving devices to die himself.

It always seems a little odd when a person of such high regard dies. Unlike the celebrities or socialites who die, when someone who makes such a tremendous impact on the lives of people dies — and what more of an impact can you make than saving a life – it seems almost unfair.

Most of us can’t imagine what it was like nursing in a cardiac ward before the development of routine bypass surgeries and other life-saving cardiac procedures. We also barely remember the days of glass IV bottles and only a few antibiotics to choose from. But, the science of medicine moved at such incredible speed and with its progress, came great changes in nursing. What used to be a hands-on profession is now much more technical. If you work in an ICU, you handle more machines than patients. On the floors and in clinics, we have machines that can tell blood oxygen saturation and machines that take blood pressures and pulses with the touch of a button. The beds on which our patients lay move magically in just about any direction we want and nurses are now more likely to be carrying a PDA and a cell phone than a stethoscope and pad and pen.

Truly, the progress has helped with patient care; it makes patient care safer in some cases, more effective in others. But has nursing lost something along the way? I remember standing at a patient’s bedside calibrating an IV drip, something that had to be done with paper and pencil as you figured out your drops per minute to equal the amount of fluid ordered per hour. But those few moments were also, very often, a few moments to chat with the patient or the family as I played with the regulator, trying to get the drip rate just right. Of course, just because the drip rate was right, doesn’t mean it would stay right, so I’d have to check it frequently to see if the fluids were running on time. Each of those visits gave me a chance to check on my patient and make quick assessments. Now, with the IV pumps, you hang the fluid, check the rate on the machine, press a button and you’re out of the room because you have several more of those to do.

Taking vital signs? It took some time to get the cuffs wrapped around the arm, get the pulse, unobtrusively count the respirations, but these were all minutes that I could also use to see other things, pick up clues, see how my patient was doing.

I’m not advocating that we go back to the “old days.” I was entering nursing just as the glass IV bottles were dumped for the plastic bags, a welcome change to be sure. I would never want to go back to re-usable syringes and needles, again something I missed and was glad to. But there are some things that were better before. These things were what kept us grounded with our patients. They were part of what nursing is.

Dr. DeBakey and his fellow inventors and pioneers have given the world tremendous gifts, but I think we need to remember that sometimes, progress doesn’t always work for the better. Sometimes we need to sit down and see what parts of the past we should keep.

Read our Web Exclusive on Dr. Bakey, "The World Mourns a Pioneer," for more.