Before ending up on disability eight years ago, I was a full-time registered nurse for 20 years. I graduated in 1985, back when hands on nursing was how nurses were taught, and if any of us hadn’t planned on getting our hands dirty, we were told on the first day of nursing school to leave and not come back. Because of that way of teaching and thinking, I was prepared to really get in the middle of things even when I’d become a charge nurse or shift supervisor (and many RNs in the region elevated themselves above actually touching a patient- Lord knows nobody else did!).
I remember many patients fondly in the countless patients I saw over the nineteen years I worked. Some of the names may have been lost to time and a memory full of patients, but I remember many of their situations and some events/characteristics quite specifically. There are a few select patients that were a gift to know. They weren’t technically VIPs as the world sees people, but my life was better for having known them. I’m very thankful for each of them.
One of my favorites (and yes, I know I was supposed to be impartial, but I’m human!) was a wonderful woman who was in and out of the hospital as she battled terminal cancer. She was an immigrant from Germany, and still had a delightful accent in her flawless English. Even with the torment her body was going through, she had a wicked sense of humor, and if someone got to know her ‘well enough’, she could come up with some silly comments that totally masked her life as it was then. She used to tell me I was like a bat. On the surface that doesn’t sound so sweet, but she’d have a sideways grin, explaining “You are up all night, and in the morning you want blood.” She had a point ! I love bats now; they remind me of her in a fond way.
She was in her 70’s I think, and aside from the cancer that was killing her, was fit and mentally sharp. She also was from a generation that still believed in some modesty in personal matters, and was very unsettled when she had difficulty with control of some bodily functions. While I was in charge and didn’t have a direct care patient load, I would often answer her call light because she had expressed some mild uneasiness at the youthful unawareness of some of the younger nurses who would help her get cleaned up. She was ashamed, and embarrassed. The younger nurses didn’t mean anything by their quickness, though a few would come back to the nurses’ station stating that the odors were offensive to them (which was the place to express those things- we all did). I told this patient that if she wanted me to come and help her, she could just tell her nurse that she wanted to talk to me, no reason need be given, and the nurse would not be in trouble. (They were all very sweet, and did a good job as young nurses, but the were young, and just didn’t have the experience to look at things as the patient might be seeing them- or how they would feel in the same situation). She thanked me, and did call for me periodically.
This woman was no stranger to suffering, and yet she remained upbeat and pleasant. The ‘worst’ I ever saw from her was when she’d get a bit quiet. I’m sure she had to be exhausted. There was nothing left to do with the cancer except for comfort care. Her husband would come to the hospital every day. I rarely saw him, since he’d go home before dark, and I worked the 7 p.m. – 7 a.m. shift. But he was consistent, and her main support system. What I heard about him from the day shift told me he adored her.
What really left an impression about this sweet lady was the tattoo on the inside of her left forearm. She was a concentration camp survivor. She had seen- and lived through– the absolute worst that humanity has seen (and done) and she hadn’t let that determine how she interacted with the world around her. It would have been so easy for her to be hostile, untrusting, and resentful, but she was the exact opposite. She was a true survivor, shedding the ‘victim’ label and mentality when it would have been more than understandable to let it define her. She and I never discussed that tattoo, but she knew I’d seen it (she didn’t attempt to hide it, nor did she ‘show it off’- it just was). Maybe my eye contact after first seeing it let her know that I acknowledged the indescribable hell she’d survived. I don’t know. We talked about general things, and she seemed to feel comfortable with me, so I believe if she had wanted to discuss it, she would have. It wasn’t something I felt I had the right to bring up. I had no frame of reference for the horrors she’d witnessed and lived through, and while I would have gladly listened to her, I didn’t want to seem intrusive into something that so few truly understand.
I was amazed by this sweet lady. I felt honored to have known her, even during a part of her life that was unpleasant and sometimes messy. She embodied life even though she was dying. She showed me what the human spirit is capable of, if chosen. When I heard that she had died at home (with hospice care) I was sad, though also relieved that she didn’t have to endure any more of the nastiness that cancer brings. I knew she’d never leave my memories of nursing. She’d always be someone I thought of when anyone said ‘survivor’, even though she’d died. She had enriched my life, though I was supposed to be the one making hers a little better. She was a privilege to have known.