My brother pointed out to me the other day that I don’t tell the stories of the bad ones, that on my site I’ve shared many stories of the good patients I’ve met, but have failed to document the more sour interactions. He, of course, has heard countless stories of exasperating patients, of those people I visit who have deemed themselves free of the need to conform to the social norms of politeness, respect, and quiet often, hygiene. His observation was accurate — it was with deliberate intent that I excluded those episodes from this site.
But after the discussion I realised that by focusing only on the uplifting exchanges, I’m not accurately portraying my profession, and in a larger sense, my community. Laborious and infuriating personalities make up the web of society as much as, and sometimes more than, the pleasant. By ignoring this branch of humanity I’m also ignoring the insights and experiences that come with them, as distasteful as those insights and experience can be.
So here we go…
The inside of her house was lined with a layer of dust and cat hair, an accumulation of years. It was something I couldn’t just see and smell, but could taste, to the point that simply breathing in the air felt like a fouling act. It was as if each breath was coating the insides of my lungs with its own layer of dried skin flakes and moulted cat fur.
I was there to attend to wounds on her lower legs. She was forty-five years old; young, given the average age of our clientele. She had wounds due to years of uncontrolled diabetes — the consistent high level of sugar in her blood had killed the micro-vessels in her legs, reducing the amount of oxygenated blood delivered to her skin. Without proper circulation, her skin integrity weakened and ulcers developed, which then failed to heal due to the same poor quality circulation that caused them.
It’s importance to stress that in her case “uncontrolled diabetes” isn’t a reference to undiagnosed diabetes. The patient had known of her condition and had had years of doctors and medical specialists educating her on the necessary exercise and dietary requirements needed to manage her disease. She weighed one-hundred and fifteen kilograms and her blood sugar results were perpetually high.
This was not a picture of a woman who had heeded medical advice.
She scooped four cats from her single bed, throwing them out the door, before falling face first onto the mattress so I could attend to her wound care. Her bulk filled the bed, her affected legs sticking out like twin wrapped hams. I peeled away the soaked and soiled dressings while she complained about how her wounds wouldn’t heal. Her limbs were stretched tight with oedema and yellow slimy pockets of broken skin rung her calves, the angry red edges like bruised and swollen lips.
I looked around her house, breathing shallow breaths, focusing on the decade worth of dirt that coated her home. Dirt that a half-an-hour vacuum once a week could have avoided. That a thirty-second swipe of a cloth could have wiped away at the time, but instead, years of voluntary neglect had accumulated into a stain that could only really be cleansed with fire. I took in these details and wondered if it was worth explaining for the hundredth time ways in which she could aid her own wound healing. Ways such as losing weight, eating a well-balanced diet, exercise, and stopping the consumption of soft drinks.
I began, knowing the words would be wasted, but she cut me off.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know all that. Every nurse goes on about it. I’m just sick of it.’
I fought to resist asking why then does she still spend her days eating chips on a couch that has moulded into the shape of her body.
A colleague of mine once decided she would wear this patient down with positive enthusiasm. She went in offering support and encouragement. She sat and talked to her about how we would help her heal her wounds if she would only help us. That we would aid her every day to bring her weight down and correct her diet. That it didn’t have to be a monumental thing, but just small acts done daily. Acts like walking to the letterbox.
Her letter box was ten meters from her door, and my colleague suggested that when she had finished tending her wounds, she walk with her to the letterbox on the way out as a form of exercise. The patient agreed.
Once she had dressed the patent’s wounds and hoisted her work bag, my co-worker said,
‘Come on, then. Walk me to the letterbox.’
The patient sat on the couch, looking at the nurse as she thought about it, then responded with a shrug,
It’s hard to care about another person’s health when they don’t care about it themselves. It’s hard to squat and lift heavy legs, to scrap muck away from weeping wounds, to walk into a home that makes you feel ill when the other party isn’t doing their fair share. And it’s too easy to think, ‘Why am I bothering when they aren’t?’
She was one of the bad ones.