Once…I walked down the hospital corridor with a trail of toilet paper spotted with caca taped to my shoe. It was Halloween, of course, and the caca was just the smearing of an old Hershey bar.
While the other nurses wore little mouse ears and big cat whiskers, I was proud of my costume: It was simple and unique. It was my first year of nursing and I was young, skinny and hot. I was a male nurse with a fierce Farrah Fawcett flip and a moustache. I could work a blow-dryer past its prime.
“Dat look stupid,” said the Head Nurse following behind me. “Bettah not be real kine toilet paypah.”
Did I mention it was Hawai’i in the late ’70s? Head Nurses didn’t have master’s degrees and they spoke just like the rest of us, improper and to the point.
“Why?” I asked. “Fat Hannah is dressed like Lil’ Bo Peep.” Now that looks stupid, I thought.
Head Nurse said, “Fat Hannah have tie-roid issue.”
I failed to connect Hannah’s thyroid problem with her need to dress as a very large nursery rhyme, but I said nothing.
Then Head Nurse said, “Toilet paypah not good costume. You so immachoore for dis-kine of job.” Then she hit me where it really hurt. “Nexx-week you go night shiff, you learn job bettah and you will work hard—for real. Night shiff, no joking-joking.” Head Nurse loved to double talk.
Once she made fried chicken and told us, “Here you folks eat, I make-make.”
Head Nurse liked to tell me about my immaturity. If I was three minutes late, had scuffs on my white shoes or ate candy at the nurse’s station, she would say, “You so immma-chooooore,” stretching it out so I would make sure to comprehend it. I hated my boss’s threat. What did she mean by “I will work hard—for real”?
“I guess this means I can’t enter the Halloween contest?” I asked.
Working the night shift really messed with my disco plans, but it was on the graveyard that I learned an invaluable lesson.
Mrs. Tanaka was 85, and although I didn’t know much about her, I knew she had been a wife, mother and state employee. Most importantly, I knew she was a Do-Not-Resuscitate because I was scared to death of death.
It was 4 a.m. and I was making my rounds. “Mrs. Tanaka, you’re wide awake?”
“No can sleep,” she said. “I make shi-shi.”
Let me translate: Shi-shi is “urinate” in the Hawaiian native language. Even though there is no “p” in healthcare, as you know, there is a lot of pee.
“Alright, I change your diaper now,” I said.
It was then that she pointed toward the geriatric recliner.
“I will sit,” she said, and I lifted her toward the chair (we didn’t have fancy Hoyer Lifts then).
“Shall I show you my new dance?” I said to her while she sat in her chair near the window. She nodded yes. I did the ponytail side-to-side whiplash that was so popular then. You know the one (the make-believe ponytail that slams from shoulder to shoulder).
Mrs. Tanaka grinned and clapped. “Funny man.”
Again, I’ll translate for you: funny man = gay man. It was the ’70s.
It was then that I noticed her falling asleep. While returning to the station I had a strange feeling about this patient. Why on earth did she want to recline in a chair at 4 a.m.?
When I returned I found her looking more peaceful than I’ve ever seen a patient look.
It dawned on me that Mrs. Tanaka had passed away. There, in an old blue geri-chair swaddled in white linen and a fresh diaper, she was dead. No more to be. No more coffee in the morning, no more nurses in bunny ears, no more anything.
As I looked upon the Honolulu City lights, the reality of it gripped me harder than the sight of Fat Hannah in bloomers with her first prize trophy.
Beyond the glass IV bottles, large hypodermic needles and the clumsy, loud Kardex care plans, I had been a part of someone’s life. Someone’s very important life.
This woman had been a wife and mother, and her last image on earth was the sight of my Halloween costume…my Farrah ’do swinging side to side with “I Love the Nightlife” jingling in my brain.
Oh god, I thought. Oh my god, I am a nurse. A real, card-carrying nurse.
I gently laid her back in her hospital bed and notified the supervisor, and it was then that I felt it…it wasn’t a tear—I was too young and vain for that—it was something much bigger: Her last breath felt like my first one. Was this a sign of maturity?
For real, I thought. For real.
Did your first experience with death as a nurse affect you in a similar way?
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