“And then I stuck a whoopin’ big needle—“ I looked up and saw my host’s eyes widen in surprise and fear. The entire table of six grew silent and I mentally slapped my hand against my own forehead. I’d done it again: tried to share a work story with friends, forgetting that the average person is uncomfortable with blood and likely scared of needles.
Americans are all about work. Some people’s job details are boring, others too technical for non-initiates to understand, but mine tend to make people sick. I hadn’t anticipated this aspect of nursing—that it’s socially isolating—when in midlife I decided to return to school to become an RN. I was so excited about entering the world of healthcare I assumed others would share my excitement. In many ways they did. But I’ve learned the hard way that the bonds of friendship and family cannot make the details of a dirty job tolerable to the average person. In fact, there are nursing stories I’ve never shared with anyone outside the hospital because they’re just too odd, too much a departure from normalcy even in the world of healthcare, where we routinely shove tubes in people’s rear ends, collect stool samples for the lab and carefully measure volumes of urine before flushing it down the drain.
One story: the patient we called “the turd burglar.” I’m going to leave out all possible identifying details and say only that this patient had cancer in his brain and his mental status was extremely compromised. His slipping grip on reality manifested itself bizarrely: He liked to hold onto, and sometimes hide, his own stool. One day his nurse found a large turd nestled in his empty Kleenex box. Another day a group of nursing students mistook the brown mush in his hand for leftover bran muffin. “No,” I told them, “that’s his own feces.”
A normal reaction after an upsetting encounter like this at work might be to call a friend and talk it over or unwind while cooking dinner. Turd burgling was the last thing I wanted to think about while I prepared food, and no one in my circle of friends would react with anything other than horror and disgust when hearing about this poor patient.
We’re all supposed to be repulsed by behavior that is scarily outside the norm, especially when human waste is involved. But taking care of this patient was a normal work experience and I can think of myriad similar situations. The proverbial “ass-plosions,” the confused patients who walk around and defecate on the floor. Even the example all nurses joke about: diarrhea, which we discuss over lunch or drinks. Non-nurses would be better off eating or having cocktails somewhere else, and we’d like to join them, except it would mean talking less about what’s really on our minds.