Break Room

The kissing nurse



“No one is left unhugged or unkissed by Theo, whether they like it or not, and most everyone does.”

The following is an excerpt from the chapter “A Night in the Life” in The Making of a Nurse by Tilda Shalof.

I get up to stretch my legs and set off, on the prowl for something sweet or salty to nibble on, out of a vague restlessness. I see the nightly congregation about the nurses’ station has begun. We’re a few steps away from our patients’ rooms and can be there in a jiffy if needed, but for a few moments it is as if we are a world away. It’s our communal campfire and there’s no denying that at times, there’s a festive, party atmosphere that must seem so heartless to anyone passing by.

Here we sit with our jellybeans and pretzels and over there are the patients, stretched out with their tube feedings and IV bags. We are chatting and laughing while they are intubated and unconscious. Not for one moment are we oblivious to the fact that they are not exactly having quite as merry a time as we are, but somehow, that brief, frivolous interlude fortifies us to return to our patients.

Perhaps at times we do get carried away. I remember a patient on the floor telling me once, “I heard you guys and dolls whoopin’ it up last night. Having a party, were you?” I apologized for keeping him up. “Yeah, but it was also kinda nice hearing your young voices and knowing at least someone is having a good time,” he admitted.

Tonight we’re worrying about our hands, the tools of our trade. We examine them for cuts, abrasions, contact dermatitis and rashes. We bemoan the antimicrobial hand lotion we have to constantly use, and how it dries the skin.

“It’s the powder inside the gloves that irritates them, makes them itchy.”

“My hands are raw! Worse on the days I work, and on my days off, they kind of recover.”

“All the handwashing we do is rough on the skin.”

“I can’t stand wearing gloves. It’s not the same, you know, when you touch a patient through vinyl. It’s like wearing a…”

“Yes, yes, we know, we get it.”

We moisturize. We debate the merits of glycerine, lanolin, shea butter and plain old Vaseline. We vote for the most effective barrier cream, the best emollient, and estimate the number of hand scrubs per shift. We keep our hands in good shape, the way a chef cares for his set of knives or a musician tunes his instrument. We were impressed when we heard about a hospital that gave out leather manicure kits for Nurses’ Week—much preferable to the coffee mugs with the hospital’s logo, pizza vouchers or free doughnuts, we all agreed. I greet Chandra, who’s also on tonight. She’s dipping her fingers into an industrial-sized pot of something called “Bag Balm,” working it into her hands. It smells like a barnyard.

“Have you seen what it says here?” I read the label. “For veterinary use only. It’s a ‘soothing, penetrating, healing ointment for caked bags, sore teats and chapped, hard milkers. Apply to udders before the night milking and again before the day milking.’”

“If it’s good enough for Shania Twain, it’s good enough for me.”

“She uses it? What’s wrong with her hands?”

I put to them a question I’d been thinking about. “Could you be a nurse if you were blind?” They ponder a moment, then mostly agree. Even in a wheelchair, you could be a nurse, they say. “But what if you didn’t have use of your hands?” Ahh, that’s different, they agree. No, without hands, you couldn’t be a nurse.

“That’s what I think. No gadget, device, piece of equipment or trained monkeys will ever replace the hardworking human hand, for its capacity to soothe,” I say, bringing them around to my foregone conclusion.

Roberta makes like she’s playing the violin to my sentimental observations.

“Oh, cry me a river!” says Jenna.

Theo joins us and we admire his beautiful hands and the elegant gold and sapphire band he’s been wearing on his ring finger since his recent wedding to his partner, Phillip. “Boop-boop-dee-boop,” he sings out, giving a little skip and kick of his heels before plopping himself down onto Roberta’s lap. He has shown me pictures of when he was a drag queen and won the Ms. Gay Halifax Pageant and, I must say, he looked stunning in his pale blue ball gown.

At the start of every shift, Theo swoops into the ICU and envelops each person he encounters into a huge embrace and plants a kiss on every cheek of each doctor, nurse, hospital assistant, porter, housekeeper, respiratory therapist, ward clerk, family member. “I darn near got a hernia leaning into your bed to give you that kiss,” I once heard him say to a patient. No one is left unhugged or unkissed by Theo, whether they like it or not, and most everyone does. (And if at first they aren’t completely comfortable with such florid demonstrations of affection, they soon get used to it and even begin to crave it.)

Do you (or anyone on your nurse team) kiss and hug your coworkers? Your patients? What do you feel is appropriate?

Excerpted from The Making of a Nurse. Copyright © 2007 Tilda Shalof. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Tilda Shalof
Tilda Shalof RN, BScN, CNCC (C) has been a staff nurse in the Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Toronto General Hospital of the University Health Network, for the past twenty-four years. She is also the author of the bestseller, A Nurse’s Story and an outspoken patient advocate, passionate nurse leader, public speaker, and media commentator. She lives in Toronto with her husband, Ivan Lewis and their two sons, Harry and Max. Learn more about Tilda and her books at

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