It’s a shock at first, the hospital -- you lie on a bed that has a mind of its own, undulating beneath you to prevent bedsores, you are tethered to a pole on wheels that follows you to the bathroom, bags of fluid and toxins dangling over your head, you are denied comfort by pumps whose alarms sound for no good reason, tubes buried in your arm, needles taped too tightly to your skin. And the interruptions! There’s nothing that says hospital quite like being woken in the middle of the night so someone can take your vital signs.
All of which is why nurses matter so much.
During my four hospital stays, I spent more time with nurses than my loved ones. Their shift changes, every 12 hours, defined my days and nights. Their moods influenced mine, often for the better, occasionally for the worse. I wish I could remember their names as well as I remember their faces.
The first whose name I do remember is Leslie, a smiling mom who wore a photo of her baby along with her ID card. She worked day shifts during my first stint at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and when she made her long commute from home to the hospital, she brought her maternal instincts with her.
Our first conversation went something like this.
Leslie: “Can I get something for you? A snack? Drink?”
Me: “I’m okay, thanks.”
With other nurses, it might have ended there. With Leslie ...
“I make a pretty good orange creamsicle milkshake.”
An offer I couldn’t refuse. And she sold herself short: She made a great orange creamsicle milkshake. It tasted like childhood.
For the rest of my stay at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, my best days were Leslie days. Creamsicle shake days.
My best night, I owe to Tim.
From the moment I learned I had leukemia, I worried about losing my hair. As a young man, I had thick, curly hair and wore it so long my first work nickname was Animal. Stylists sang my praises. Alas, as the years passed, my hairline receded, like my father’s before me. (It’s okay, Dad, we’re good.)
Still, I liked what hair I had left at the time I got sick, and my beard was going strong. But I knew losing both was just a matter of time, an inescapable consequence of chemotherapy.
My mindset in the face of cancer was to control what I could of the experience, so I resolved that when my hair started shedding, I’d shave the rest. That would make it my decision, a choice and not a consequence.
It wasn’t long before I saw hairs on my pillow. I began asking nurses to shave my head, and what I got in return was excuses. I’m not sure why; perhaps they were slammed, perhaps they couldn’t be bothered, perhaps experience had taught them that patients who asked for a shaving too often regretted it.
It’s so busy tonight, maybe tomorrow?
Sorry, I can’t find the clippers.
Maybe you should ask Tim.
I remember Tim for his gentle voice. Like Leslie, he endured a long commute to work in the blood cancer ward at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. His previous job was in a hospice about an hour away, which he found rewarding until he reached the point where he needed to be with patients who might live.
It was midnight or so before Tim had time for barbering. He placed a chair at the foot of my bed, and after I sat he draped me in a hospital bedsheet. As the clipper hummed in his hand, I bowed my head and watched as my hair fell in wisps of black and gray.
When Tim was done I took the two steps to the bathroom and leaned through the door, head first, just far enough so I could see myself in the mirror. Damn!
“That looks pretty good,” I said.
“I’m glad,” said Tim as I rubbed my skin, savoring the smoothness.
I remember other nurses too. Kat, who apologized for being anal as she fussed until more than certain that this pump or that dosage was exactly right. Christi-Lynn with her musical laugh, restaurant reviews, and reading suggestions: Poisonwood Bible. Kevin and his Boston accent, Pam and her horses. Even when names are lost, some moments aren’t; I’m still pissed at the Brigham and Women’s nurse who suggested I get my own popsicle in a tone that said I was lazy, not hurting.
But on the whole, I have one thing to say to the nurses who were there for me, and especially to Leslie and Tim: Thanks. The gift of your kindness is immeasurable.
My hope in recounting these experiences is that they’ll be of interest to others coping with cancer: patients, caregivers, loved ones and practitioners. You’re welcome to respond by commenting below or by emailing me at email@example.com.
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