It was around three am on my third seven-to-seven in a row. I preferred the night shift on the cardiac care unit when it was quiet so I could have time to read and study between my hourly rounds and answering the infrequent call button.
I knocked on the door of the isolation room before walking in. From the pre-shift meetings, I knew that the patient was a serious risk for infection. I donned latex gloves from the box beside the door, put on a gown and pulled up my surgical mask.
The sodium vapor towers outside lit up the room. I looked up at the flickering television; it was yet another Law & Order rerun. The bed was empty, then I noticed the patient silhouetted against the window. He was sitting on a recliner, staring out the at the parking lot.
“Hello, darlin’,” he said. “You comin’ to stick me?” I guess he figured I’d be taking blood so a work-up could be done before the morning shift arrived.
“Mr. Sindow ... you really should be in bed, you know.”
“Can’t sleep lying down. I get a lot more rest like this. I know I doze off for a time. And these days I’m a lot more comfortable sittin’ up.”
I clicked a fluorescent on low and rolled the cart over to him. He was wrapped in two blue and white striped johnny coats, his badly-scarred legs sticking out. “You’re gonna be gentle this time, darlin’?” he asked. He was always kidding me. But there was something in the way he called me “darlin’” that was unsettling and a bit too intimate.
I wrapped the blood pressure cuff around his arm, inflated it and took the reading as it deflated. I also entered the current time and the readouts from the rolling cardiac monitor onto his chart. We all knew it was redundant, that all of the data were stored on the mainframe in real time, but the written chart was easier to access and read – and more immediate. I then tapped into the intravenous line in his arm and drew out a vial of blood. “No stickin’ tonight,” I said.
“You’ve got a sweet gentle touch, you know that?”
“Thanks. I’ve been doing it for at least a few days.”
He chuckled. “No, I mean it. You’ve got a real nice way about you. You remind me of a nurse back in ’nam.”
“You go back that far? You don’t even look it.”
He chuckled, then said, “Well, that’s real kind of you. But I sure as hell feel it.”
I checked my watch. I’d have plenty of time to complete my rounds. It seemed like he wanted to talk. “What was it like for you in Vietnam? I’ve heard some of the stories from other patients.”
He sighed and said, “You really want to hear about it?”
“Well, first thing was the heat. It was always hot. Always steamy. It smelled wet. Sometimes rained for days on end. And we were so damned scared that all hell could break loose at any time. Good drugs and weed over there, though. But you know all about that, I guess.”
“Some of it, yeah. We’d had a group of Vietnam veterans speak to us at a PTSD seminar. Very scary stuff they went through. And that they’re still going through.”
“One afternoon we were out late on recon. They were never ending, these missions. It was my turn on point. I came to this clearing. I had a bad feeling, you know? And then I hit a trip wire. I shoulda been more careful. I knew as soon as I tripped it that things were goin’ to be bad. Bled like a stuck pig. Hurt like all get out. Couldn’t hear a damn thing. I heard screaming, then realized it was me, from inside. Even the medic’s morphine wasn’t cutting through the pain until I passed out. I got my legs blown near off from the blast. Lucky the ’copters came quick and I was medevacked to a mash unit for triage.
“A few days later, after I was stabilized, I was helicoptered to the base hospital. I’m kinda foggy about those days ’cause they just came and went like a blur. Antibiotics and painkillers. Lots of painkillers. They said they weren’t sure if they could save my legs ’cause of all the damage.”
“Sounds dreadful – what you had to go through. But at least they saved them.”
“Yeah, but they’ve never been right, especially, you know, when it rains. Also when it doesn’t. And I ain’t gonna win no beauty contests no more.” He chuckled, then shook his head.
“Anyway, we were all lying there on these so-called beds. Torture devices was more like it. There were burn patients there. Men with so much shrapnel that they couldn’t remove it all at once. Amputees, some even multiples. I didn’t want to end up like any of them. So I swallowed my pain meds, begged for more when I could, and prayed that I’d be able to walk again on my own two legs.
“But lemme tell you, it was bedlam there, with the injuries and pain and desperation. You think these patients were big and strong like those soldiers you see on them ads? No f’in way. When you’re all burnt up, or your body’s on fire from all the lead that’s still inside you, and you’re constantly, always hurtin’, you could hold it in only up to a point.”
Damn, I thought. This man must’ve had it rough. Is probably still having it rough. But I don’t think it’s best to always dwell on the negative so I asked, “You said something about a nurse?”
“Oh, the night nurse, yeah. She’d been rotated in and I heard she requested the graveyard shift, though when things got really hectic, they all worked ’round the clock – doctors, nurses, everybody. At night, she checked in with each of us. To her, we were no longer just soldiers. We were her boys. And through the night, she came to us. Held our hands. Spoke softly to us. Became our mother, our sister, our confessor, our girlfriend.
“There were many a night when she came to me, and drew the curtain around, and pulled down the sheet, and told me to ‘shush’ and rubbed me down there and sometimes put her mouth on me and made me feel like a man again. And then she’d kiss me on my forehead as she tucked me in. I could still remember her smell as she leaned over me – like sweet baby powder. After, I felt so relieved, so grateful. She made me want to go on.”
I’d heard stories like this, but doubted if they were true. The stories sounded more like pornography than therapy.
“Anyway, I called her ‘Angel’ though I think her real name was something like Inez or Betty. When I said her name softly so no one would hear, she would smile. She was my Angel, my connection to God or whoever or whatever you believe in. But she made me want to live.
“And a funny thing, though it wasn’t so funny: Soon after she got there the ward began quieting down. There no longer seemed to be all that suffering and chaos. I knew I wasn’t the only one she went to. I’m sure her special touch made many of us want to live.”
“Well, that’s one thing they didn’t teach us in nursing school,” I said. We laughed, then he started coughing. I poured him a plastic cup of water; he took a few sips, caught his breath and went on.
“But not all of us were going to make it. Some of the wounded were so bad off that they didn’t have a chance. Even the sweet loving of my gentle Angel couldn’t get through to these poor bastards, pardon my French. And when they knew there wasn’t much that could be done for them and they begged and pleaded with her, and when she and they both acknowledged the miserable truth, her own special love for her boys turned into a gift – a gift of mercy as she helped them to quietly pass on to a better place.”
He took a long inhalation and let out a sigh. “I loved her. We all loved her. And I’m here today only because of my Angel.”
Rev 4 / June 10, 2011 .. Rev 9 / November 19, 2014
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Number 36, August 2015
October 2013 Copyright © 2013, Lloyd B. Abrams