I never wanted to be a nurse. When other 10-year-old girls were reading Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, I was pretending my Schwinn was a bay stallion and together we were galloping down Sylvandell Drive in Pittsburgh, always under the gray cloud of steel-mill smog that hung in the sky. When I was 12, most of my friends donned candy stripers’ uniforms while I signed up for Saturday art classes at the local museum. After high school graduation, my candy striper friends debated the size, shape and overall appearance of nursing caps—the criteria for deciding which nursing schools they’d attend—and I went off to Gettysburg College, where I wrote poems, wore black net stockings, played guitar and grew my hair down to the middle of my back. The thought of giving someone a bedpan gave me the creeps. But life has a way of sending us where we never thought we’d go.
Move forward several years: I’m married with a baby, and my husband and I aren’t meeting the monthly rent. His cousin, a nurse’s aide, suggests that I become one, too: on-the-job training, flexible hours and, best of all, decent pay. My very first night, I was introduced to the world of nursing in ways I’d never expected. I walked into a room to take an elderly man’s vital signs and found him cold and dead in bed. For several minutes I sat watching him, awed at the sight of this human being whose soul had recently departed, leaving his body a fragile husk. I held the old man’s hand, suddenly filled with sorrow that he had died alone. I touched his yellowed fingernails. I leaned close and memorized his face. Only then did I tell the nurse.
Later that same night, a patient’s husband called me an “angel of mercy,” and a woman waiting for the results of her biopsy told me how afraid she was. While I gave her a back rub, she wept. Afterward, she caught my hand and told me how grateful she was for my care.
The hospital, I quickly learned, was a different world, one where people suffered and died. In the hospital, there was an undercurrent of mystery, sensuality, spirituality—here, love and caring were primal, like the love between a mother and a child, with all of that relationship’s fears, longings, difficulties and joys. When I gave my weeping patient a back rub, my hands soothing her skin, I felt the same difficult-to-define selflessness I felt caring for my baby girl.
Little by little, I began to like my job. I understood that in the hospital, during all those intimate and critical moments between nurse and patient, the caregiver becomes the transparent giver, and the patient is the very real receiver. Often sick or dying, a patient, like an infant, is helpless to do anything but exist in the moment. As a nurse’s aide, I found great joy and great peace in the smallest but most important interactions: offering a cold glass of water to a thirsty patient; holding a lonely old woman’s hand; listening to a man talk of his life, almost over. When I returned home at the end of my shift, everything was more precious. Everything reminded me that this other world—the suffering hospital—existed 24 hours a day. If I woke at 3 a.m., I knew that while I nursed my baby, somewhere a nurse might be feeding a patient or giving a patient pain medication or saving a patient’s life. When I walked through the hospital doors in my squishy shoes and my neat blue uniform, not knowing what I would find, my heart opened, like a hand.
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