Is that the real-time or the old-time? I repeatedly asked my ER nurse Kevin who was attempting to keep me drugged, pumped with antibiotics, and as comfortable as possible until the doctor could see me. The fall time change took place the night I went into the ER at the beginning of a five-day hospital stay. Every twenty minutes or so, I emerged from a swampy nightmare with my pillow soaked from tears and sweat that broke through the morphine he pushed into the IV lodged in my right elbow. By the end of my hospital stay, that vein collapsed and filled scar tissue. It’s still unusable.
I don’t know why I cared about the time, I barely have clocks in my house, and I’ve never been able to keep a watch without breaking it. But when I emerged from the iron sheet haze of morphine and fever, curled onto my right side gripping the side of the ER bed, the first thing I saw was the clock. Is that the real-time or the old-time?
Nurse Kevin gave me funny looks and asked why it mattered. It didn’t. Maybe it was the thing I could visually cling to the same way my hands gripped the bed railing—the two things keeping me from shuffling off this mortal coil. I wasn’t in a brightly lit space surrounded by floor to ceiling curtains being whipped open and closed by fast-talking doctors as you see on TV. I had a private room off the ER, with dim lights glowing green from the forest colored wall and Kevin walking softly and speaking in hushed tones. Compared to the packed waiting room full of costume-clad revelers, it was quiet.
I’d been vomiting for days, gotten better, and was getting hit again. We later learned my gall bladder had died, turned gangrene, and was taking my liver and pancreas with it. My husband and I drove an extra half an hour to a hospital we trusted. The one we didn’t trust was only five minutes from my house. I threw up in layered Hannaford grocery store bags on the ride. All the pink Pepto I’d swallowed earlier was in the kitchen garbage can, along with a ruined pair of socks. All I had left was highlighter green bile.
The ER waiting room was packed, and everyone was angry and talking loudly, and it was hot. I decided to keep moving in the hallway because I was afraid if I sat in the chair, my heart would stop beating. David waited for them to call my name. My shoulder and head dragged along the bumpy wallpaper as I closed my eyes and counted doorways between the ER and the bathroom. Groups of beer-soaked dudes passed me in the hallway, shouting, “Look, the zombie apocalypse started!” and laughing. Each group thinking they were original and hysterical. I couldn’t waste the energy to flip them off.
When the triage nurse looked at me, she jumped on the phone and placed me into Kevin’s care. He tried to examine me and, at one point, asked me to hold my breath, and I started to hyperventilate. Tears rolled down my face. My husband spoke up, “She’s a swimmer. She thinks she’s drowning.” I don’t believe I said that out loud, but he was right.
Nurse Kevin looked me in the eye and took a deep breath, “I’m a swimmer too.” Before that, he’d tried talking to me about work, if I had kids, the weather, but I was so scared and confused, I barely answered. His approach changed utterly. He spoke with me about favorite strokes, speed, distance, anything to calm me and keep me focused. It was the first subject that seemed to ease my frazzle.
Before we spoke about swimming, I was conversing with myself about not wanting to die. I was close too. If we hadn’t gone in when we did, I maybe had an hour left. None of the staff could understand how I was still conscious since I was well past the ten on the pain scale. The morphine push just kept me quiet, but it didn’t touch the pain. Nurse Kevin made sure everyone who came near me saw a scared person, in excruciating pain, curled up in the bed in the dimly lit room, dying.
All the nurses I had over the five days were amazing. They brought little things to me to let me feel more human. Like shampoo so that I could wash my hair in the sink. They would walk with me in the hallways, keeping track of my distance on a board. The doctors were great and did their jobs well, but the nurses made me feel seen.
I’m so sad to hear how COVID-19 has walloped nurses. I have students telling me the pandemic is a hoax because they, at 23 and 25, don’t know anyone who has it or died from it. I have, and I know people who’ve gotten over the worst of it but may never fully recover. Meanwhile, the people providing the most care, who holds your hand and finds a way to connect with you at your worst moments, are taking the brunt of this illness.
I wanted to share the story of nurse Kevin, one of many, but one who saw me and found a connection so he could provide me with the best care at one of my most terrifying moments. A time when I didn’t think I’d make it through the night. I wasn’t even his only patient, but Kevin did his best to make me feel as if I was his top concern. When I got home, I sent a letter to the head nurse, letting her know what a great job her staff was doing. In return, I received a letter from the hospital president saying how nice it was to have a letter praising his staff since he spends most of his time dealing with complaints.
I am not alone in wanting to share my appreciation for healthcare workers who have looked over us or the ones we love. Padraig O’Tuama read the poem Leaving Early by Leanne O’Sullivan on his podcast Poetry Unbound last March as a thank you to those on the pandemic’s front line. If you haven’t listened to this podcast, you should, it’s not very long, and it will refill your soul’s cup. This poem is lovely.
tonight Fionnuala is your nurse.
You’ll hear her voice sing-song around the ward
lifting a wing at the shore of your darkness.
I heard that, in another life, she too journeyed
through a storm, a kind of curse, with the ocean
rising darkly around her, fierce with cold,
and no resting place, only the frozen
rocks that tore her feet, the light on her shoulders.
And no cure there but to wait it out.
If, while I’m gone, your fever comes down —
if the small, salt-laden shapes of her song
appear to you as a first glimmer of earth-light,
follow the sweet, hopeful voice of that landing.
She will keep you safe beneath her wing.