In Praise Of Nurses: Learning At The Knee (And Heart And Mind) Of Bobbie

For four very long years — from March 2001 when my first child was born to September of 2005 when she was cured — she, and I and her dad and her brother spent large spans of time in the hospital.

We were hospital dwellers because our daughter was born sick with a blood disease requiring constant transfusions and ultimately a curative bone marrow transplant. Passing hours and days and months inside medical life means, most of all, making friends with nurses. Nurses are the front line, and the back flank; the wellspring of defense and camaraderie and comfort that flows between the beginning and the end. Dozens of nurses carried us through dizzyingly tough times. One nurse, in particular, carried us one by one into — and back out of —  the deepest, scariest trough we’d been in yet.

Bobbie Caraher was the “primary” nurse assigned to us for the duration of Gracie’s transplant at Duke Medical Center. Bobbie taught us, taught me, more than can be encapsulated in any list. She entered our room in Durham, North Carolina by way of 12 years of nursing for the International Rescue Committee, in places like Thailand, Sudan, and Bosnia. What she taught us, by example and by being herself completely and authentically even within a work role, is more than can fit into words in any form. But in the spirit of trying to do the impossible — which is Bobbie’s way — here are few of the things we learned at her side.

Be a Warrior-Librarian

The first time we met her, Bobbie — our primary nurse in the Durham hospital where our daughter Gracie was to have a bone marrow transplant — put us at ease almost immediately with a can-do-will-do attitude delivered in a charming southern drawl. She had cats’-eye glasses and a bob with blunt bangs–the hairstyle equivalent of rolling up your sleeves.  She was almost militarily efficient in the way she set about disinfecting the many medical instruments needed to treat Gracie, but her brisk air was softened by the fact that she performed this task wearing a pink cardigan with pearl buttons.

When she left our room after meeting us on that first day, I turned to my husband and said, “She’s the one to stand next to in a street fight. Warrior-librarians are the fiercest!” And I wasn’t wrong. Bobbie came to our rescue again and again with an unwavering, (almost courtly!) equanimity, beneath which flowed the willingness to kick the Dickens out of anything that needed the Dickens kicked out of it. Power in a pink sweater, not to be messed with. A large part of her magic was the ability to tell you, in the nicest possible tone, when you were dead wrong. Resistance was futile, thank goodness.

Turn Your Inanimate Enemies into Friends

Shortly after we met her, Bobbie rolled a large IV pole into Gracie’s room. “Okey-doke, Gracie, time to hook you up.” The pole held multiple pumps, programmed to dispense medications round the clock. Each med flowed through tubing which would attach to one of Gracie’s three central line catheters. Bobbie hooked them up, med by med, line by line. As she attached each tube to its corresponding catheter, she’d introduce the two ends to each other, “Mr. Red, meet Mr. White. You two are gonna be good friends, I just know it.” And then she’d screw the sides closed. Gracie laughed at this little skit, each time, and asked if she could attach them too. When Bobbie was finished, Gracie and this IV pole were tethered together, inseparable, a necessity that didn’t seem as terrible, or inconvenient, or limiting as it had just a few minutes earlier.

And this was Bobbie’s way; turn unpleasant demands into a game or a play starring Gracie as matchmaker or circus bear or the president of an invented country. For reasons she never shared, Gracie later christened the pole “Tough Guy;” he became her loyal sidekick, her straight man, her protector.  Bobbie had taught Gracie how to humanize (even colonize!) the invasive machines of transplant, how to make each one a player on her team.

Celebrate Stuff Wherever & Whenever You Can: Carpe the Plastic Champagne Flute!

The earliest days of Gracie’s long transplant process fell across the holidays. On New Year’s Eve, Bobbie arrived on duty at 8 p.m. for the overnight shift. It was just like her to take the tough shift no one else wanted. She arrived with bubbly apple juice and three plastic champagne flutes; at midnight, the three of us toasted each other. This tiny hospital room wasn’t where Gracie or I or Bobbie hoped to be on New Year’s. And, with the exception of Gracie, we were separated from our most dearly beloved. But Bobbie’s joie de vivre, her sense of celebration even within the grimmest circumstances, her insistence that at midnight precisely we not only pour the juice but touch flute edge to flute edge and toast in song, was revolutionary. It reminded us all of the obvious and most easily obscured truth: life goes on. Even when you’re scared or hurting or semi-imprisoned, there are occasions to mark, tiny happinesses at hand. We couldn’t always find them on our own, but we could recognize them when Bobbie offered up the moment, gift wrapped.

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