Friday, November 13, 2015

The Language of Nursing

I ask what I can to do make you feel better and the response is so simple, it stops me in my tracks.  You want me to wash your hair. 

This, I realize, is one of the things I take for granted.  I am healthy.  I am strong.  The shower is no great obstacle for me.  You can’t remember the last time you walked.  The last time you bathed yourself, instead of having your daily bed bath.  The last time your hair was clean.  I think way that the hot water rolls down my body and sluices away the stress of the day.  Of Tolkien’s bath song, “Sing hey! For the bath at close of day, that washes the weary mud away…O! Water Hot is a noble thing…” 

I make the water warm and wrap the towels around your shoulders, knowing they will not catch it all and we will have to change your sheets anyway.  I gently pour warm liquid.  I watch it make rivers through your hair and soak into the towel.  You lean your head back and close your eyes. I massage the shampoo in with my fingers.  You sigh in pleasure.  More water.

We roll you back and forth to change your sheets.  You don’t mind the wet but we do.  And finally you are dry, you are clean, your bed is changed.  I find a comb and begin to work the tangles from your hair.  My hair is so long, you say, delighted.  And finally, you smile. 

I am not a nurse yet but this is, it seems to me, the language of nurses: to be able to do for someone what they cannot do for themselves. To be trusted with the basic needs of a stranger and to, even if just for a few minutes, help those in your care feel like people instead of patients.  I love this job. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


I come in the room and you are naked and raving, restrained to the bed.  Of course you have the half of the room by the door.  Your roommate’s wife is waiting for him to come back from an MRI and she pretends not to notice.  The people in the hallway pretend not to notice. I notice.  Gone are the days of averted eyes.  I pull the curtains, cover you, and hoist you up in the bed so you can breathe better.  You immediately kick the covers off and try to leave but the restraints hold you back.  I don’t want you to fall, please don’t do that, I say and you tell me getmethefuckoutofhere.  This is the last coherent thing I hear you say for the rest of the shift.  I know this is the cancer that has metastasized to your brain.  I know this is not you, but I don’t know the real you.  All I know is that I want you to please, for the love of God, stop trying to rip out your port and try and keep your penis covered.  You are dying and the real you might already be gone.  I cover you again.  You throw the covers off.

I’ve seen people die before coming here, but there is a strange intimacy in the dying process of a stranger.  I feel it at births as well—seconds that extend into lifetimes.  I know what to do with pregnant women, but you are a mystery.  I should be able to make this easier but instead you are stuck paying tuition for my education with your body.  Before you I didn’t know that trying to inject someone with old skin was harder than with young skin.  I did a flu clinic.  Everyone was 24.  I’m sorry.  The only way I can thank you is to be better for the next patient.

Your wife comes.  I tell her that I can see how much you must love her because you immediately calmed down when she came in and she begins to cry.  This is so hard she says.  You were working full-time in the summer and now you are dying.  I hold her hand.  I tell her what it a pleasure it was to get to know you and care for you today.  And I surprise myself when I say it because I realize I am not lying. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Donor Lab: Nursing School, Day Two

Donor lab.  Day two.  Day two and here I am, shaking and sweating in the cold room.  I am surrounded by stark steel tables and the shrouded husks of human beings.  I can see their outlines, the shape of their heads and feet.  I am afraid.  I was told that I would personalize.  That I would see my grandmother or my grandfather, but instead I see myself.  The quickly unraveling spool of time.

We begin to unwrap them, to unwrap this final gift they have given us.  The gift of themselves.  I touch his head through the gauzy shroud and tell him thank you.  I want to comfort him.  His face is still covered, his skin cold, his flaccid penis naked and uncovered for anyone to see.  I want to rub some warmth into his shoulders.  His life is mapped out on his bare, sagging torso, the story of him in wrinkles and freckled skin.  His arms that maybe once held a dear child in the dark night.  His hands that perhaps once reached across a balmy evening to grasp and clasp the hands of his lover.  His mouth that once spoke of plans and hopes before it was wrapped in white.  His face that once showed anger and laughter and sadness and was surely loved.  I want to comfort this man.  Maybe I want to comfort myself.

Who were you, who were you?  Who loved you?  Who did you love?

And here is Professor.  And here is my hand inside the embalming incision in your thigh, beneath the layer of subcutaneous fat, pinching your femoral artery.  You don't seem in bad shape, being dead aside.  Professor says, feel that arteriosclerosis?  Day two and my fingers are inside your leg and I promise myself I won't eat another cheeseburger.  Fuck, maybe I will start running.

Who were you, who were you?  Why did you sign up for this?  Why did you do this?

Laryngeal prominence, Professor says.  And suddenly he is unwrapping your face and, oh God, your face.  The face makes you more.  Who touched it?  Who loved it?  Who misses it?  And Professor.  Professor looks crushed.  I don't understand.  I stupidly flutter my paper at him, willing him to get back on track, back to where we were before your face cut away the few defenses I have remaining.  I'm having a moment, Professor says, gently covering your face.  I knew him, Professor says, shaken.

And here is the key to who you are.  To who loved you.  To who you loved.  To why.  But I can't ask my questions.  I can't dishonor the way Professor has rested his hand softly on your shroud.  I can't lessen the way he responds that he is trying to do what you would want and he'll stay with you, when someone smarter and more compassionate than I am asks if he wants to move to another donor.

I know who you are from this.  I will never know your name, but I will remember you and this moment.  I will come back to you next week and the week after and the week after.  I will know that you were so much that you gave this to us.  I will know the kind of person you were and the kind of person Professor is.  The gift that you have given into the hands of this teacher who knew you and who honors it and unwraps it and gives it to others so that they can step out into the world in the hopes of making it a better place.  I stroke your cold, still head again and I thank you.

This is day two.