Writing as patient care

I remember a rough day, one of my last days in the hospital. I had a patient immobilized from the waist down and fresh out of surgery who could. Not. Stop. Peeing. In her amnesiac withdrawal from anesthesia, she was rapidly cycling through refusing to use a bedpan and demanding a bedpan. It was madness. An hour of back-wrenching linen changes and getting yelled at.

I can not tell you now how much I miss even those days. As a complete digression, I am made crazy by the challenges faced by nurses (and all clinicians) on the hospital floor, how it is everything but the patients that drives us mad. How many of us are forced to choose between the career we worked to hard for, our calling, and our own health and family. The American Journal of Nursing addresses the concern.

But hospital or no, I observe and I care and I’ll never not be a nurse.

Today I spent a minute in the Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Visiting with my son for a family event I just happened to pass the small room of framed letters and photos. I dragged him in, promised a treat if he’d chill for just 5 minutes, and let him tap sounds out of the installation of bell jars while I read.

In her letter, pinned just below a smiling photograph of Plath taken 6 months prior with her two very young children, I saw the lines that made it clear why a week from that day she would be dead by suicide.

She was getting over a terrible flu. After much distress, she had left her husband with babies in tow. Fled the comfort of their country home to a flat in London. It was the first week of godforsaken February. The longest, darkest, depressionest month.

February 4, 1963
“Everything has blown and bubbled and warped and split—accentuated by the light and heat suddenly going off for hours at unannounced intervals, frozen pipes, people getting drinking water in buckets and such stuff–that I am in a limbo between the old world and the very uncertain and rather grim new.”

So here is where writing can be patient care. Always be assessing, always be educating. You can do it with a dead mid-century poet if it makes a piece of writing.

Plath is in a volatile state, the responsibilities of motherhood on her shoulders, just separated from the comfort and support of friends and familiar places. The pipe freezing signals her loss of control. Her limbo between old and uncertain and grim? An expression of hopelessness.

It’s no revelation that Sylvia Plath was depressed a few days before her suicide. But by seeing her as not an hysterical artist inclined to shuffle off this mortal coil at a moment’s notice, and instead as a person, mother, a sufferer of a common condition, she is a

I recognize her words as if they were my own read back to me. Because they were my own, not long ago. The remark “I long to have somebody really play with and love the babies…They are so beautiful and dear and will in effect have no father.” This kind of loneliness, where you seek for someone to share love for your precious child, is crushing. And in the worst of depression: losing the ability to play with you babies, lacking energy, lacking interest. Having failed to mother, life’s most important task, why keep fighting? For me, someone noticed. And they got me help.

Hearing words like those of Sylvia Plath in her last days come from the mouths of friends and family should spur action. Recognize a mental health crisis. Help us take care of each other better. Be there at the bedside.

And as a writer, considering anyone who reads this my beloved patient, now you know. I’ve told a story that educates you. Listen for that tenor of in the speech of the people you care about. And to recognize it in yourself. Like a good nurse, assess, then act.

Also, why isn’t February Mental Health Awareness month? It is rough out there, folks. Take care of each other.

There is a movie review in this blog.

Print journalism has been so good these past months that felt like years. Remember back in 2012, that gleeful feeling you got when you read Pete Wells’ review of the Guy Fieri superfund site in Times Square? Well, I just re-read it and it is a mere amuse bouche for the righteousness served daily by journalists at the Washington Post, New York Times, and smaller dailies in Detroit, Cincinnati, so on. Oh, lord, ProPublica’s piping hot Pulitzer-prize winning online investigative journalism. Just as you might “a plate of pale, unsalted squid rings next to a dish of sweet mayonnaise with a distant rumor of spice,” choke down this justice!

All of this is to say that print journalism is being the kind of excellent that one can only imagine was motivated by a prior laziness, a willful misinterpretation of equal coverage, a cowardice so big it created a universe of language to explain a phenomenon where one word would do (lie); all contributing to the rise of the a leader that in brief, is frickin’ dangerous.

SO! What I mean to say is now is the time to hug your journalist. And, if you like me think human lives are fascinating and the people that spend theirs writing about others even more cause they are themselves fascinating in super intelligent, hard to get along with, quirky beyond all reason ways, please watch the documentary Obit.

Somewhere buried in the documentary the writers address the “isn’t it sad to write about dead people all day” question. I couldn’t agree more with the answer, which is: not at all. They get to write about a life that, likely if it makes The New York Times, is full and brilliant, meaningful, left a legacy, and often lasted a long time.

I feel the same way about taking care of people at end-of-life. Is it sad? Not usually. Not really. No.

I regret even starting with the Guy Fieri stuff. I’ve lost my appetite.







The burn of the beam/For thirty-three days/Day after day/Of high-energy rays

Writing and doctoring/nursing are twin professions in my mind. It makes perfect sense that the two things I love most in this world are literature and medicine.

What a Sisyphean effort–both pursuits–spending all hours of the day and night fighting against entropy, suffering, and for your efforts being sometimes baffled at moments of transcendence. Making sense of this big mess of human stuff.

Poets, doctors, nurses, practice in the space between what we know as fact and the mystery of pretty much everything else. It’s a magical space, and for many people I think it must be where god lives. It’s where I keep cellular respiration and Leaves of Grass.