For those of you who have stumbled across my blog, let me catch you up: I’m a nurse, but aspire to be a writer. This information is relevant as the following post is a combination of both professions. In other words, I’m about to write about nursing.
Nursing is a job that allows you a backstage pass into people’s lives. This is simultaneously fascinating and confronting. Some days you’re thankful for this privilege; you get to see wounds you could fit your fist into, or have intimate conversations with people who are facing death. Granted, these aren’t normally considered privileges, but trust me, it’s rather incredible. It’s an insight into reality. A harsh stripping back of polite society and a plunge into the fragility of what it is to be a human. Picture a dive into cold water; it’s shocking, but also exhilarating.
Other days, however, you wish the responsibility didn’t fall on you. As a nurse I’ve had patients look to me for answers. They don’t see the twenty-five year old man who feels as inexperienced and naive as a five-year-old; they see a nurse. A medical professional. I’ve had eighty-year-old men ask me when it’s going to get better. I’ve had women the same age as my mother cry as I hold their hand because they’re too overwhelmed to hold it together. Mostly, I don’t know what to say. Thankfully, what these people really want is just someone to listen and empathise. I do that, and feel guilty when they thank me for my help.
The following story is a mixture of both aspects of nursing. The privilege and the weighty responsibility. It was an experience that stuck:
On the first day of the year, I learnt that one of my patients had died. We knew she was dying, but it ultimately happened fast. Four months ago they discovered she had cancer. Worse, they discovered she had cancer everywhere.
We were originally looking after the patient’s husband, Ray. When I first met Ray, his wife, Catherine, was in hospital receiving chemotherapy. It was this hospitalisation that brought nurses into Ray’s home to help keep his tracheostomy site clean as Catherine couldn’t attend to his care.
I first met Catherine three months after meeting Ray. To me she had the look of the dying. Pale dry skin, sunken cheeks, a shrivelled frame, and thin wispy hair revealing her scalp. Ironically it was the treatment rather than the disease that caused Catherine to look like this. Chemotherapy is an asshole.
Despite her fragile appearance I found Catherine to have a quick mind and a sarcastic sense of humour. Ray was more quiet, much of this due to his tracheostomy, and unfailingly polite. A fellow nurse described them as “one of those lovely couples.” She nailed it.
Despite her condition, Catherine and Ray carried out their much honed daily routine, of which I was lucky enough to be a witness and occasional player. Breakfast around the kitchen table which carried on into lunchtime. Horse races playing on the radio in the background, crosswords and quizzes from the paper a daily tradition. Often their daughter would be there, easily slipping into the fold of toast and newspapers.
I would clean Ray’s tracheostomy to the side of this scene. It may seem odd to scrape mucous from a hole in a man’s throat meters from where his family are eating breakfast, but the unspoken ease with which they accepted this made the moment poignant rather than unusual.
Catherine returned home from the hospital with a colostomy and needed help tending to it three times a week, and soon she was a patient of ours as well. I would tip Catherine off when I entered that it was her lucky day; she was on my list. She would take her cue and shuffle into the bathroom to begin the process of removing the colostomy bag. Once I had attended to Ray I would knock and enter the bathroom. The image I would see upon stepping into that pink tiled room I still find heartbreaking.
Catherine, her singlet as pale and thin as herself tucked into her mouth, struggling to tug away the sticky mess of bag and wafer from her colostomy site. Her pink glistening stoma squatting in the middle of her sunken abdomen like a parasite. I wonder how she felt when she looked into the mirror and saw a skeletal version of herself with her exposed bowel sitting on her belly. She never said anything disparaging. Never commented on her pitiful state. Often she would joke. I knew she was uncomfortable. Whether it was because I was male, or because of her wasted body, I don’t know. It didn’t matter. I didn’t hold it against her. I was uncomfortable too. I wanted to do something, or say something to ease the tension, but there’s nothing to say when both people are acutely aware that dignity has been replaced with the threat of death. I hated the helplessness of the scene whilst admiring Catherine’s composure.
After a month of tending to both of them, Catherine developed a chest infection and had to be hospitalised. The staff there tried to have her out and home for Christmas but she was too sick. She was never discharged and died on the 31st of December, 2011.
Reading back on this story it appears depressing, and it is. But that’s not the only reason I wrote it. Part of the reason was for me to describe the heartbreaking scenes I am a part of on a daily basis. I needed to describe it because it’s something I face everyday, and something I am expected to carry on with. And mostly I do. But sometimes I want someone to understand the full tragedy of these visits so I can look them in the eye and say, “Isn’t that fucked up? I deal with this everyday.”
The other part is the beauty of Ray and Catherine’s relationship. I don’t care if it’s cliched and sappy. Those two people loved each other and had discovered a comfortable ease in which they lived that love. Most of us want nothing more from life than that. Maybe they had gone through shit to get there, slipped up and made bad decisions. Argued. But at the end, with his wife dying beside him, Ray could still look up, smile, and give the answer for a crossword clue which Catherine would pencil in.
This is the beauty and responsibility of nursing. The consequence of the backstage pass. It is both fascinating and confronting and feels more real than anything else I have experienced. It is a constant inspiration for writing, and more importantly, for living a good life.