Life & Style | People

While you were sleeping: Nurse falls in love with patient in coma

Brianna Lytle never guessed when she started her nursing shift that she would fall for a patient in a coma

  • As told to Jemimah Wright
  • Published: 15:09 March 27, 2013
  • Friday

Nate
  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Nate’s head injuries were the result of a fall at work.
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His face was swollen and a mass of purple, green and yellow. He had a bandage around his head, but I could still see a long incision stapled together on the side of his skull. On his left hand there was a metal contraption with screws holding the shattered bones in his wrist in place. I stared at the patient in intensive care, listening to the hiss and whirl of the machine forcing air into his lungs. It was all that was keeping him alive.

Nate Lytle was in a coma following an accident. He’d fallen off a three-metre-high ladder while working in his father’s industrial-supply company. In the fall, he’d fractured his skull hitting a thick metal pole, pushing pieces of bone into his brain, which had caused heavy internal bleeding.

He’d been rushed to the local hospital where I worked as a nurse. Nate wasn’t on my ward, but I’d been so moved after reading about his accident in the local newspaper that I’d gone to see him.

Although I didn’t know Nate, his story touched me. That’s why I was now by his bedside. It wasn’t something I’d ever done before, but something was pushing me to go and see him. Looking at his helpless, broken body, I was overwhelmed with sadness. He was just 22 and probably only had hours to live. “Please,” I prayed, willing him to get better, “Help him recover.”

Then I realised the time – my shift was starting so I hurried away. Working in a general ward was challenging as I had to look after patients with orthopaedic injuries and general illnesses like pneumonia. It was my first job as I’d just graduated from nursing training.

The first lesson I’d had to learn was how to care but not become involved with my patients. I could do a better job if I wasn’t personally involved with them. But for some reason I kept thinking about Nate. Although I had seen hundreds of sick people, there was something about this man that deeply affected me, so I tried to find out as much as I could about him and his condition. From the newspaper report, I learnt Nate was a local surfer and he knew two of my friends, Dustin and Jen Nichols.

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‘It seemed there was no hope’

He had been conscious after the fall and was able to walk into the emergency room with his parents to have his wrist examined. While he was waiting to be seen he became incoherent and had trouble holding his head up. The doctors had rushed him to the trauma unit where he rapidly deteriorated and was put on life support.

A Cat scan revealed major damage; his skull was shattered. He was taken straight into surgery to remove the pieces of skull so it would relieve the pressure and bleeding in his brain. His parents were told he had little chance of surviving without surgery.

In the operating room, Nate’s neurosurgeon discovered bone fragments cutting into
his brain and three blood clots. The part of the brain that regulates breathing and the heartbeat stopped working. Also, the left side of his brain collapsed during surgery. He was on life support after he slipped into a coma. I heard all this from other nurses and my heart sank. It seemed there was no hope.

I ended up visiting him as often as I could, slipping to his bedside when it wasn’t visiting hours so I wouldn’t disturb his family. “How is he doing?” I asked one of the nurses. She looked at me. “It is hard to say at the moment, you can sit with him if you like,” she replied. I took a seat by his bed and prayed for him as he lay unconscious. He was so young, and had everything to live for. “You’ve got to fight,” I whispered. Amazingly, Nate didn’t die, but started improving with every day. The doctors said they were witnessing a miracle.

He was still in a coma, but alive. I was so relieved and continued visiting him every day. After a few weeks Nate was transferred from ICU to my ward, and I became one of the three nurses assigned to him. I was pleased – now I could look after him and help make him better. I loved looking after him.

A deep connection

I checked his vital signs, gave medication, cleaned the wounds on his wrist where the metal fixator was. I also used to speak to him and kept willing for him to get better soon. It was weird, but as I cared for him, it was as if I was getting to know him better. It was inexplicable but I felt a connection with him. It was of deep affection and love. It was something I’d never had with any other patient. One day, as I was taking the staples out of his head, he suddenly woke up and looked straight at me.

“Hello Nate, you’re going to be OK,” I smiled, before he closed his eyes again. As the days went by, he slowly became more and more conscious. I was excited and extremely happy with his progress. When he was awake and I had to change his bandages he would sometimes just stare at me – his big brown eyes did something to me that melted my heart.

“He looks at you differently from the other nurses,” his mum Tammy said one day. “I think he likes you!” I didn’t know what to say, but whenever I sensed Nate staring at me, I would just smile back, hoping I could somehow reassure him. He didn’t speak at all but whenever he looked at me I felt he was trying to converse with me. A strange bond began to develop between us.

Five days after he was moved to my ward, he was transferred to a larger rehabilitation hospital as he was progressing fast. I was glad for Nate as he was doing so well, but I knew I would miss him. I followed his progress through Jen and Dustin, thrilled when I heard that he was talking slowly, even though he now had a stutter, and could walk.

Finally, two months later, Dustin and Jen told me he had been discharged. I heard there was going to be a benefit event held in his honour, and I wanted to help somehow. I was shy though and didn’t want to put myself forward. But I wanted to see how Nate was, and so, deciding I had nothing to lose, I rang up the woman organising the event asking if there was anything I could do. She told me to come along as they needed all the help they could get.

I was nervous walking in. I didn’t know anyone and wasn’t sure why I was really there. Was I being a nurse who wanted to help an ex-patient or was I there because I wanted to see him again? I spent the morning serving tea, and then Nate’s mother spotted me and remembered me as one of his nurses. I saw her grab Nate and start heading towards me.

My heart was pounding, my mouth dry. “This is Brianna,” Tammy told Nate. “She was one of your nurses in hospital.” He smiled. “Oh hi, t-t-t-thank you so much,” Nate said as he shook my hand. I could feel my face going red but I forced myself to chat. We only exchanged a few words, but he made a big impact on me. I just felt like I knew him, really knew him, and I wanted to see if he felt the same way.

Dream dinner date

The following Thursday I got a call from Jen inviting me to dinner. Nate was going
to be there. I was excited as I got ready. I wanted the chance to talk to him and to share the impact he had made on me. He was such a genuine person and I wanted to be around people like that.

When I arrived, Nate came over and gave me a big hug, stuttering out his words.
“Th-that’s you, that’s you,” he said. “The girl with the teeth and the eyes. I thought you were an angel. You are, but you’re real!” I didn’t know what to say to that, and I was embarrassed, being really shy. “I’m just glad you are OK,” I told him.

He’d lost a lot of weight and had to wear a helmet to protect his head in case he fell or hit it against something. His short-term memory had also been affected. He would easily forget new things and found it difficult to remember details or names of things or people. But he was very approachable and it was clear he had a warm heart.

He had a magnetic personality and I felt I just had to get to know him better so I asked Dustin for his number. I called Nate the next day, wanting to tell him how he had touched my life. “Hi Nate, it’s Brianna,” I said. “We met last night, remember?” Luckily he did. I went to pick him up and we went for ice cream. He was very open and easy to talk to. He made me feel at ease even while in the midst of his own struggle.

I couldn’t help notice that people were staring at Nate in his blue helmet. He was thin, pale and stuttered a lot. I felt bad for him, but then I realised it didn’t seem to bother him at all. We chatted about life experiences, where we’d been up to that point, what we’d done in our lives. We just talked and talked, and agreed to keep in touch while he was away at rehab for three months in Galveston, a city on Galveston Island in Texas.

He was going to be gone for two months working on his speech, memory and putting muscle back on his body. We spoke every night on the phone. We talked about everything – from what he was doing at rehab through to what we wanted to do in life. I mostly listened, loving to hear his voice and his speech improving. I realised that I was missing him, and that my feelings for him were really strong.

I went to visit him a few times and one weekend he came home to Victoria, which is 200 kilometres from Galveston. We went out for dinner and I couldn’t stop smiling. He looked better, his stutter had reduced and I knew that I was falling for him. I wanted to meet up with him and talk to him every day.

I just didn’t know if he felt the same way, but I secretly hoped he did. And then on Valentine’s Day he handed me 25 notes. “I want you to open one every day we’re together,” he said, and I grinned. Each one had something special that he loved about me or appreciated or a philosophical verse. On the day of the last note he invited me round for dinner.

As I reached for the last note in my bag and was about to read it, Nate got down on one knee and pulled out a ring. The note I had in my hand read: “I love you, will you marry me?” I didn’t hesitate. “Yes!” I replied, kissing him. I never expected to meet someone I would love and care for so much, in the unlikeliest of circumstances. We married a month after he proposed and almost two years after I first met him, in the most beautiful ceremony in a small chapel in the country.

Nate is now almost completely recovered and leads surf camps for blind, disabled or autistic children. He has recently written a book about our story, and travels around speaking to different groups giving them hope. I would never have wished for him to go through such a terrible accident, but I am grateful that it enabled us to meet, and that now we are husband and wife. Miracles do happen!

Brianna, 30, a nurse, and Nate, 29, live in Webster, Texas, in the US.

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