Saturday, May 10, 2014

Thank a Nurse

The place: Boulder, Colorado; the time, 1979. I’m lying in a hospital bed trying to get comfortable with a headache way off the 10-point pain scale and nausea to match. My neck so stiff I have to turn my whole body to look in a different direction.  I am a physical anthropology grad student at CU – my favorite subject is gross anatomy – and I’m so sick I haven’t yet figured out that it’s my sixth cranial nerve, the abducens, that’s no longer working. I’m just aware that my right eye is crossed – frozen, paralyzed, hanging out next to my nose – and I look a bit like a demented Siamese cat.  (If only I’d called my anatomy professor, Dr. Brues, I could’ve saved us all a lot of time and hurt, but that’s a story for another day).

I hear a quick knock and the heavy hospital door swings open. A young woman in what looked like colorful street clothes (without a hint of white) approached the stainless steel rail of the hospital bed. Through blurry double vision I could see a stethoscope slung around the back of her neck and the outline of hospital nametag on her top. She introduced herself – to this day I remember her name.  She was the “Head Nurse,” on my floor.

That day in 1979, she didn’t take my pulse, she sat down on the side of the white starch sheets covering the bed, held my hand, and began asking me some questions, and they had nothing to do with whether I’d peed or pooped. She wanted to know about who I was and what I did, which as a young Ph.D. student, pleased me even through all the pain, because a young graduate student will talk to anybody who even acts like they are remotely interested in what they’re doing.

I don’t remember all the details of our conversation. Even in my foggy sickness, though, I am certain that I filled her ears with all sorts of stories about the bones I’d examined and the cadavers I’d dissected.  Most of all, I remember that as I concluded my mini lecture, her expression grew serious. “Okay,” she said, “listen, you’re really intelligent and know a lot of important things.  So, I’m telling you, ask questions…of everybody.  You have to participate in this.  Don’t be passive. Ask a lot of questions.”

And that was the first time – of which I’m aware – that a nurse saved my life.  Because the events that unfolded over the next 48 hours were critical, and my litany of questions – often humorous, occasionally sarcastic, and at times, downright mean – helped determine that I had bacterial meningitis.  It took two weeks of IV penicillin to help my immune system overcome pneumococcal meningitis, though it left me with some ongoing problems. But it was my nurse, the Head Nurse, who initiated the healing process that February day: she called me back into the game.

So if you’re here today reading this, chances are you need to thank a Nurse.  And if you can’t call one up in your personal memory, thank Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). Florence Nightingale, whose birthday on May 12th marks the celebration of International Nurses Week, set the highest of high bars for nursing today.  Where unnecessary conventions existed, she defied them.  Where barriers to health existed she moved heaven and earth to move them.  A fierce social reformer, innovative statistician, dedicated educator, she cared for the sick, injured and dying in the Crimean War under the most challenging conditions imaginable.  Her works, among them, Notes on Nursing, continue to provide ongoing insight and inspiration.

I am able to write this blog post today, my first in several years, in part because of the important role nurses continue to play in my life. So, thank a nurse. And if you don’t know one, thank Florence.