Friday night at the hospital knocked me off this high horse I’ve ridden lately. I’ve been on a big patient advocacy, let me share my story jag. Despite feeling like I’ve had every experience possible in the U.S. health care system (and some in Canada, Mexico, and the Republic of California), I really haven’t. And I’ve walked the halls of the hospital where I work long enough to become unfeeling to a lot of the suffering. It’s human, it’s survival, I’m still disappointed.
After removing someone’s problematic accessory organs in the OR Friday night I got a message from a friend, someone I haven’t really known since childhood, saying her dad was sick and she was there. I regretted not checking my phone earlier. I had already changed out of my scrubs, so riding the staff elevators to her floor I knew I was going to get the reception of an after-hours visitor. Chilly. I tried to hold my name badge conspicuously, but surely enough there were all those familiar unwelcoming looks. The you better not be here to make trouble side-eye. The it’s too late for your kind of nonsense head shake. I have been the the side-eyer. The head shaker. Damn.
I really don’t understand how we fit all the furniture plus two very sick people in those tiny hospital rooms. Maneuvering in to visit is human tetris. I hug my friend, take off my glasses and squat down to see if her father remembers me through the 20+ years and the onset of dementia. He kindly says hello. Asks again about necessity of the IVs. The stay overnight.
It was hot. Heat rises. We were high up. I would be in a perpetual sweat when I worked that floor, but fool that I am assumed it was my constant motion. Families complained, and though I may have apologized for the inconvenience I quickly dismissed it. Sorry about the heat but right now I’m trying to stop you from bleeding out internally. There is a famous meme that I am now ashamed to admit to using like a mantra:
I was there briefly, only long enough to say hello and I’m sorry. To steal a fan from my home unit. Those shoe box sized white electric fans are the only hospital commodity more stolen than pillows. Soon the tech was hefting my friend’s father up and off to the bathroom, shaming him for walking three feet on his own (NO ONE WALKS ALONE is a safety campaign at my hospital as well as an apocalyptic vision of the future). Physically keeping him cornered until he crawled safely back onto his bed, the only surface a patient may occupy. As a nurse I’ve done this too. DAMN DAMN.
I understand and have embodied nursing’s motives for the way we treat patients. There are so many and their needs so great. The gown and the industrial linens, the bedside commodes and 3+ identifying armbands that become a patient’s most significant identity dehumanize but serve a critically important end. Hospital survival. Name, allergy, fall risk. Limb alert. Anticoagulation. Difficult airway. Oh god what have I become.
My friend is like me, a woman working in the caring professions derived from the great Lillian Wald. She’s a pro. She gets it. Just before leaving I leaned across the narrow hospital bed, now safely occupied, held my friend’s hands and whispered to her. I’m sorry I can’t help you. This is why I became a nurse and not a social worker. This human stuff is too hard! She replied, “This is why I became a social worker and not a nurse. This hospital stuff is to hard!”
It is too hard. But heaven help me. I’ll try to do better.