Sunday, November 29, 2009


Make a puking sound. Go ahead - humor me. Now exaggerate it - bump up the volume and do it more slowly. Once you've got that down, do it from your toes - as though the heave is springing from your very soul. That's what I heard when I was leaving the hospital yesterday. My mom has been battling ovarian cancer and is in the hospital with pneumonia. As I left her room to go home, I heard some poor woman across the hall heaving so deeply, so loudly, that I wondered if it was a prankster pretending to be sick. Then I remembered that I was on the oncology floor. The nurses at the other end of the hallway looked up as if to say, "Is that for real?" I'm horrible with distances, but they were further away than the person who lives three doors down from our house. My heart absolutely ached for her. What a horrible, heinous thing to have to go through; I cannot even begin to imagine what it's like to be chained to a drug that leaves you like that. As I was walking toward the nurses (away from the sick woman) a nurse behind me said, "She's throwing uuup." I could be wrong about this, but she sounded a bit put out. And it pissed me off. Seriously? I don't like cleaning up vomit at all, which is one of the gazillion reasons I couldn't ever be a nurse. I have the utmost respect for those who put their whole heart and soul into caring for a sick person. They are the true good Samaritans. But in any field, there are a few who not only don't have the gift, they're grumpy and cold and rude, and let it be known that their heart isn't in the work. Maybe she was having a bad day, but I wouldn't doubt that the puking woman heard the tone of her voice between heaves. What's worse than throwing up your toenails when there's nothing coming out? Dry heaves + a caregiver who makes you feel like a burden.

It's been interesting observing what happens on the 7th floor of Seton Medical Center. Some of my mom's RN's have been absolute gems. Sarah is my favorite. She's very kind, soft spoken, easily engaged, and leaves you with the impression that she would do just about anything for you. I even know that her favorite dog is with her parents in Alaska. While she went about her routine - flushing my mom's port, taking her blood pressure and temperature, she shared some of her life with us. It was a very nice distraction, as we had been sitting in darkness and silence trying not to think about the seriousness of our situation. Lisa is the same way. She looks you in the eye and listens intently to your concerns, your questions and your incessant rambling. That's what people do when their loved ones are gravely ill - they ramble. We hate seeing our moms and sisters and friends suffer so. We are worried we will lose them. And we feel profoundly helpless because we're not powerful enough to neutralize the effects of the disease that is tormenting someone we love.

In contrast, there are also a handful of nurses who have been snippy. They give staccato answers, and act like you're putting them out when you ask for an extra pillow so you can prop up your mother, who is battling bedsores. One nurse came in and completely ignored me. She was talking to my mom, and when I politely interjected something - a question or an observation about something - she completely blew me off. She wouldn't even make eye contact. I can imagine that nurses have a lot to deal with in terms of demanding, meddling family members, but I was neither. Why do some people have to be so stingy with kindness?

By far, the most amazing person who has been a part of our hospital care-giving equation is Courtney. She is a CNA (certified nursing assistant). My mom was weak from having pneumonia right after a particularly brutal round of chemo, and she couldn't take a shower. Standing up for any length of time made her hyperventilate. So Courtney came in with her bag of goodies and gave my mom a sponge bath. She's an African-American woman, probably in her mid to late twenties, and is what my late friend Nita would call "sturdy." She had a smile that lit up the room, and her spirit was even brighter. (I am not even remotely a fan of "The Shack" by William P. Young, but I deeply appreciate the author's depiction of God as a loving black woman. I have always hoped that God is a lot like many of the African-American women I know.) Courtney lovingly and gently went about her task, though she worked with the swiftness of a racing gazelle. When she talked she had a song in her voice, affirming my mom, encouraging her. It almost seemed like she'd rather be doing nothing else. Come to find out that was true. When I commented on her incredible bedside manner she told us that she lost her mom to cancer seven years ago, and that she went back to school in order to be able to care for those who were battling the dreaded disease. As I watched her it occurred to me that God was giving my mom a bath. I don't know if Courtney is spiritual or not, but she sure did a stellar job modeling what I think true religion is. Screw theology and religious programs and endless striving to somehow lay hold of "the truth." Enough with all of the grandiose plans to save the world. How about we just care for each other, the way we hope God would care for us? Emmanuel - God with us. Could it be any simpler?

Image Credit: C. A. Muller
Licensed Under Creative Commons

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