A stunning event in my young adulthood made an indelible mark on my heart and soul and has continued to preach to me. Recollection remains sharp and ready to sting, not stored in fuzzy memory boxes and faded beyond recognition.
It was important to arrive for the evening shift at the large Veteran’s Hospital as scrubbed and polished as possible. White uniforms and clean starched caps were expected when on duty. Anything less was unthinkable in an open 36-bed ward full of former military men. Some of the patients were courtesy of Vietnam but most had served in WWII and Korea and were my father’s age.
The usual staff consisted of two capable male aides and one nurse – me. At first, my youth and zeal prompted gentle teasing. There was an air of sport in watching a new graduate working so hard to be efficient and maintain a kind and modest decorum.
The favorite line was, “A new broom sweeps clean. You’ll get over it.”
Lonely or bored patients, vying for attention from the only female around, loved to share all the daily minutia of life on a government hospital ward. In their parental protectiveness I often heard, “Watch your language men, there’s a lady present.”
There was one small, private room where patients who needed extra care or observation were admitted. I stood chatting with the latest occupant, a pleasant looking man in his early 40s with a past history of alcoholism. That accounted for his diagnosis of esophageal varacies (a fancy term for varicose veins in the esophagus).
He was proudly sober now and telling me about his wife and children while I poured a glass of fresh water for him. One second he was talking and the next instant, with no warning, our lives intersected and changed forever.
“Nurse, I’m sick!”
Before I could reach for a basin he began retching. There was a wild look in his eyes as he grabbed my hand and pleaded, “Please…HELP me.”
I had been vomited on before, but this was something I had never seen. Copious amounts of blood exploded through his mouth and nose. I yelled for the aide to call a code and bring a suction machine - STAT!
In an effort, to make an airway for the dying man, I leaped up on the high bed and stuck my hand down his throat as far as I could, desperate to do ANYTHING to stop this unexpected horror. He was still conscious. His eyes were fixed on mine, begging for help I was not capable of giving.
“Don’t do this,” I demanded, as if he could simply obey and we would go back to our chat.
He closed his eyes in resignation and life flowed out of him. The physician on call and staff from the ward downstairs rushed in to attempt useless resuscitation.
The silence was deafening as I climbed down from my bloody front row seat in that night’s drama. I went to the chart room and sat, dazed and disbelieving. The Doctor, a grandfatherly man, sat in a chair across from me and held my hand firmly as he spoke.
“If you hear nothing else tonight, my dear…you MUST hear this. Even if I had been standing there with a crash cart full of airways and paraphernalia, that man could not be helped. Do you understand?”
I stared hard at him with unshed tears, silently daring him to be anything but straight with me. I nodded.
In her expectation of a professional response, the sensible hospital supervisor intervened and showed me strength I did not know I had. Pampering would have been insulting and counterproductive.
“I’ll stay here while you run down to the surgical ward and find a scrub dress and foot covers. Wash your face and hands and get your bedtime medicines passed.”
Men who had seen more blood shed than I ever would were quiet and respectful, each one with a gentle word or a pat on my hand as they tried to comfort a young woman’s shocked and broken heart.
The life raft I was handed by that wise doctor kept me afloat through many other painful and inevitable life storms.
“When humans make choices known to produce deadly consequences, and then panic when they reap what they have sown, it is not always in our power to HELP them. The best we can do is, well…the best we can do. The rest is up to God.”
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