She came floating into my room like a terrible white battleship, and through the fog of intravenous tubes and beeping medical monitors I heard her growl, “You needing something?”
“Uh … water. I’m really thirsty.”
“Let me check your chart.” She loomed over me like a bad dream as she scanned the clipboard at the head of my hospital bed. “No. Says here you can’t have anything by mouth.”
I was angry. “Nothing by mouth? What other way would you give …?”
“Don’t ask,” she said as she turned her bow into the wind and chugged out of the room.
The year was 1970 and I’d landed in a hospital near here (hint: It was a BLESSING to get out) with a very sore throat. On the day before I had undergone a tracheotomy to remove a bothersome abscess in my throat that had decided on choking me to death. It wasn’t a pleasant procedure since the doctor insisted on cutting my throat open without benefit of anesthetic. He said that he wanted me to retain the gag reflex and you can bet that I not only retained it, but also displayed it loudly all throughout the operation.
Okay, water under the dam I suppose. The lasting memory I have of those horrible few days so long ago was not the surgeon’s scalpel, but the nurses’ frowns. They truly put the “mean” in demeanor. I’m not up on all the advances made in medicine in the last 40 years, but there’s something that’s changed in nurses.
Maybe it was the fact that in those hoary days, they were still required to wear the starched white cap and dress, complimented frighteningly by white hose and shoes. They looked like grouchy marshmallows walking down the halls of the hospital. Okay, here’s where I might get in a good deal of trouble with any of my nursing friends who were working in this healing occupation 40 years ago. I’m not talking about you, okay? I’m talking about all those other nurses.
All of which made my recent hospital stay a bit of a shock. I hadn’t seen a real nurse in action in many years and had no idea what had changed in the vocation. What happened to the white? What happened to the cap and hose and army shoes? Every nurse I encountered these past months looked like … well … real people.
My father shed a bit of light on things. He said he was president of the Pike County Medical Society when a committee of determined nurses approached the board to make their demands concerning the color of their uniform. They wanted to get away from the traditional white and be allowed to wear actual colors to work. This shocked likely all-male board to think that the sick could be healed by anything but a starched white uniform but they compromised with the color-bound nurses by saying that colored uniforms would be allowed as long as they were all blue. In the 1960s this was seen to be a major victory for the nurses of the world and the Pittsfield hospital was no longer haunted by the specters in white.
But my, my, my, you have come a long way, baby (or sir). In my recent jaunts through Passavant, Barnes, Memorial and Springfield Clinic, I’ve encountered a regular fashion show of the nursing profession with colors that have been completely unpredictable. And in all those trips, whether I was prone or upright, conscious or whacked out, I didn’t encounter a single grouchy nurse. In fact, nothing even close. Even the busiest and most harried nurses treated me with kindness and respect, whether they were allowed to give me a drink of water or not. Either someone has made friendliness a major part of nurses’ training, or there’s so much competition among hospitals that they’ve instructed their frontline troops to turn the ER into a summer resort. When you add to this the fact that the age of the average nurse seems to be 12 years old, you have a nursing profession that doesn’t even resemble that battle-ax who cared for me and my throat those many years ago.
Okay, full confession time. Twice I had nurses frown at me in Barnes Hospital. I thought it was silly to ask for help to go to the bathroom when I was perfectly capable of doing it myself. Little did I know that they had installed alarms under my bed, sending an angst-ridden nurse into my room to kindly warn me to never do that again. The second time was when I did it again.