THE CHRONICLES OF NURSE NOELLE Double Duty at St. George
As my car sputtered into the nearest garage spewing whitish gray smoke, I knew I was doomed for another week of nursing nightmares. I’d have to jam my latest manuscript back into the file labeled “edits” don my scrubs and stethoscope and fly to the nearest hospital resurrecting Nurse Noelle. Being a registry nurse desperate for cash it struck me that my life resembled that of a scullery maid. By definition a scullery maid’s duties included-- “the most physical and demanding tasks.” Hoisting obese patients and giving enemas to clear came to mind. A scullery maid also was responsible for cleaning and scouring various areas—does armpits and anuses count? The mechanic whirled me back into reality when he announced my car needed a new tube here, a radiator there, and some other outrageously priced part that I couldn’t afford. I tuned out and called the office for work.
By seven am the following morning, after taking a bus laden with perfume and various body odors, I found myself stranded on the scariest floor yet; the transplant unit at St. George. St George was known for their influx of organs coming and going like a fish market bustling with the latest fresh catch. The place was impacted with patients desperate for livers or kidneys or new bionic feet of some sort. As far as my eyes could see there were swollen scrotums, distended abdomens, and general zombie like folks scattered about. One little lady was wondering around the front desk as the nurses exchanged morning report. She was wearing a frayed pink beanie cap, torn jeans under her medical gown and one of the bile green bedspreads around her shoulders. Her right arm, which was no bigger than one of my thumbs, was attached to a pole carrying twenty different IV lines. (IV as in intravenous for those nonmedical people whom I envy. Those folks who chose careers that didn’t involve bodily fluids).
“Miss Shay, you need to get back to your room—we’ll be in to help you after report.” Zelda, the night nurse said with a strong southern twang that made me think of grits and ham hocks.
“I’m not going back to that prison cell. You people have tortured me long enough. I have fled the sea of despair and arrived on this godforsaken island. I will not…” Miss Shay was screaming as she punched her fists towards the heavens like a holy preacher delivering a sermon to his heathen flock..
“Now, now come on---. She’s yours by the way,” Zelda leaned in to inform me as if I’d won an honorable mention in a poetry contest. Her apostle like tone irritated every cell in my body. “She’s harmless, you know--just utterly out of her blessed little mind.” Zelda patted my shoulder as she waddled over to escort Miss Shay back to her room. Her enormous derriere bounced like two yoga balls colliding into one another.
I was petrified to find out who my other five patients would be. I contemplated leaving before Zelda returned. I figured with those buoyant butt cheeks, it may take a while. I could walk briskly to the bathroom and climb out of the window; except that this was the sixth floor. As I turned to further asses my escape, Zelda grabbed my elbow and shoved me back to my seat. She must have sensed my urge to escape.
“Alrighty, Miss Shay’s fine—ya’ll know she’s from a homeless shelter and isn’t used to being confined. Oh an before I forget, she’s an opiate abuser and hasn’t had a bowel movement in a week. We pumped her full of stool softeners so I’m sure she’ll have success on your shift. Her vitals are fine and I think the plan is to get her home or back to the shelter in the next day or two. Have a good day dear.” Zelda said chugging her way towards the elevators.
“You hoo, Noelle?” It was Frank, another night nurse looking to unload his patients. He was waving his hand as if he were a host at Applebee’s seating me at my table.
“You have my patients—come on girl let me get outta here.”
“Okay, fire away.” I said trying to sound hopeful.
“Their not too bad a group.” Frank said with a semi-smirk. “So Jake in room 632, he is waiting for a new liver, hoping it gets here before he checks out—if you know what I mean. He's got Hep C, a real sweet guy, fairly independent. He has a picc line in his left antecubital….” Frank droned on about Jakes medications, which seemed like an endless stream of consciousness.
He continued with report telling me about, Soroya, a sweet Indian women who was in need of new kidneys. She had a rare disorder and had been on dialysis for the last year.
Michael Chin was a middle aged Asian man, a lawyer, who had diabetes but refused to conform to treatment. Consequently, his penis would no longer perform its required duties and therefore he had opted for a penile implant.
“Things are healing nicely” Frank said. “But I must caution you about his testicle swelling—think grapefruits.” Frank chuckled as he tapped the side of his nose with his left index finger.
“Geez, that sounds painful. How long do they stay swollen?” I inquired.
“Could be weeks. So anyway in 642, Louisa Amaldoria—she’s recovering from surgery; new kidneys and a pancreas. She’s a lovely twenty-four year old from Panama. Her biggest issue is she can’t stop vomiting.
Okay and last but not least you have Mr. Joong—oh dear!” Frank flopped his cheat sheet on his lap and looked at me with empathy. His mouthed and cheeks scrunched as if he had just sucked on a lemon.
Mr. Joong was a seventy-three year old who had never been sick a day in his life—he was the model human. Worked out, ate a vegetarian diet, didn’t smoke, drank a little red wine, loved people and had a hefty sense of humor. His diagnosis-- terminal liver and pancreatic cancer. He was given a two-week to two month sentence. Frank wished me luck and waved his hostess hand good-bye as he trotted to the elevators.
Out of all my patients that day, Mr. Joong—who insisted I call him Jim, was my favorite. He had a broad smile that recruited his entire face and I found the edges of my mouth lifting involuntarily. His dark eyes belied his playful spirit; he laughed easily and had one story after another that lifted my mood and gave me reason to reflect on being joyful despite the darkest of circumstances.
“Noelle, I have to tell you—you are a good nurse—better than Frank and he’s pretty good.”
“I thought you said you’ve never been in the hospital before. How do you know a good nurse from a bad one?’ I jokingly said after giving Jim an injection that had little to do with curing cancer. Heparin, a blood thinner, was a standard drug that just about every patient received whether they needed it or not.
“I know good nurses—good nurses laugh at my jokes!” Jim chuckled. “You’re the first person to ask me how I felt about the cancer. My wife, Dotty—she was my one and only love, two years ago—she died of the cancer. Maybe we’ll be in a new wing together soon—you know?” Jim said as he pointed to the ceiling. “My daughter wants me to take the chemo—I don’t want to. Not that I’m eager to kick the can, I just don’t want all that crap in my body—rather slip out the back door still able to stand.” Jim said.
“I understand.” I said.
But did I really? What if that were my father laying in that bed? Wouldn’t I feel the same? I knew I would—but I also knew the side effects of chemo and the seriousness of Jim’s prognosis. I knew a man, an old car salesman, who declared he’d cured himself of cancer by eating only steamed vegetables. I shared this with Jim, but he said he’d been a vegetarian all of his life—maybe he’d try eating meat for a change.
Throughout the day, Jim continued to be a source of peace to the chaos around me. Miss Shay followed me all morning asking for the keys to her Mercedes and could I fix her up with a man? Because she refused to eat, she never did produce any substantial evidence from her bowel medications.
Louisa, the girl with the new kidney and pancreas—vomited the entire shift. Mr. Chin and his bull like testicles, repeatedly asked me to adjust and elevate them on pillows—as if they were precious emeralds set aside in a glass tomb to be admired. He kept asking me, "they look less swollen don't you think?" I lied and told him yes.
The mechanic called to let me know he’d found more tubes that needed replacing and there would be additional charges. When the charged nurse asked if I could work tomorrow, I dug my fingers deep into the crevices of my fists, those lines that determine whether your life would be long or short and replied, “I’d love to.”
At the end of the shift, Jim shared a poignant story with me that, I couldn’t seem to shake:
“It was 1951 when I saw Dotty, my wife for the first time. She was Italian you know—beautiful dark skin, red lips. My parents never accepted her, especially my mother. You know why Noelle? Her beautiful olive color—she wasn’t Japanese. When my father died and my mother was alone—Dotty insisted we build a granny unit for her. When my mother fell ill, it was Dotty who cared for her. One day, my mother says to me, ‘Jun, I make mistake. Dotty—good girl—I tell daddy soon.’ She died within that week. The following month Dotty was diagnosed with the cancer. She never gave up—got sick as a dog on chemo, her thick hair fell out—then she said no more. She rallied for a while—one night I made dinner, lit candles, and we danced to Frank Sinatra. That’s what I remember. I want to dance again with her. Is that selfish of me?" Jim asked.
Barely able to answer, I touched his arm and shook my head.
I fled the room claiming another patient needed my immediate attention. I raced to the bathroom to collect myself. Locked in the burnt yellow stall contemplating on the old porcelain toilet, I realized I had experienced a story of unbridled love that survived death.
Jim was discharged the next day and he promised to stay in touch. A few month later, I read of his passing. I put on a Sinatra song—and smiled knowing that Jun and Dotty would dance for eternity. And at that moment—I was grateful my heap of a car had needed repairs that day.
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.