Stories patients tell

I’ve been writing full-time for three months now. Being off the hospital floor has done wonders for my aching back, my parenting, my complexion…and I won’t lie I’m not sorry about missing a horrendous flu season. But I miss patient care. Taking care of strangers was a privilege. And the antidote for the morning news. Bigoted, hateful things lose power after a half dozen conversations with the typical rainbow cast of normal humans at your local public hospital.

I miss it today. Here’s a post I found in languishing in my drafts folder. An attempt to capture what I loved about patient care.

My reasons for being a nurse are selfish. I love stories. Taking care of humans for a living was my passport into every socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, psychological, pharmacological kind of humanity. The wildest thing is that everyone thinks their story is the normal one.

A patient might present with humor. Maybe stoicism. Open tenderness for their spouse. They give me stories that show how brave, how smart, how kind, how resilient they are. Or they may present with impaired coping: venom between parents and children. Complete submission to despair. The desire to mete out as much pain as they have been given.

The way people handle crisis of health: physical pain, just plain bad news, never ceases to amaze. An appetite for what people have to say for themselves is what makes me love being a nurse. And hate it.

Sometimes the stories are whispered. Yelled. Told in profane or racist or sexually suggestive language. Sometimes the story is just a kiss between people who have long since celebrated their 30th anniversary. Divorced spouses who sit him beside her as she’s dying. An elderly woman whose power of attorney is a neighbor that takes three days to locate and another to drop by and sign a DNR. A grandpa whose eighteen grandchildren from six different states come stream in. His hypertension abates when they stand around sharing details of their days. Another patient who becomes hypertensive when her mother is in the room.

People sing hymns. People fight with the priest. A retired four-star general occupies the room next to a man living in government housing. Everyone engulfed by their own narrative, healing or getting sicker, thinking they are the normal one. Feeling like this is the first time anything so scary or tragic or miraculous has ever come to pass.

It’s little me, the nurse, that gets to know all these stories. I still pass like a specter through them, over the borders of these private worlds, from room to room.

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