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.