Note: photos are for illustration purposes only and are not depictions of actual nurses, night or day, described in this essay.
Maybe nurses are like refrigerators. During visiting hours, when the quality of your care is on display, they are a pleasing mix of pep and sympathy. They check your IV fluids on time and change your dressing gently. And before they even walk into your room, they know your name and which leg’s been amputated.
The night nurse is special. And morphine, while not particularly kind to the colon, is kind to the night nurse; it makes you lax when it comes to taking down names.
But I could never forget Kathy, who entered my room with that cheery, plump smile and said, “Let’s see, you had a knee, right?”
“Yup,” I said. My mom’s eyes bugged out. She knew what I did not: that Kathy wasn’t just pulling my leg; she had the wrong leg entirely. Mom gave her the wet fur. “No, uh, my daughter had back surgery—a laminectomy and discectomy.”
Kathy was flustered and embarrassed. How could that have happened? She looked at the room number again, then at her chart, apologizing and promising to return after she helped the lady with the bum knee.
When she did, I’d been in the same spot for hours, and I was beginning to brown unevenly, so I asked for some help. Kathy pushed me forward on the pad, then yanked me backward, then rolled me over, like I was some kind of stiff gingerbread cookie dough she was flattening. It hurt. I moaned. I asked if I would be getting Neurontin—because it helps me get to sleep—and she said it would be coming at ten with my oral and I.V. ibuprofen, as well as my I.V. antibiotic. The names of the medications were confusing both of us, but I was pretty sure I’d not taken an I.V. and oral version of the same drug. Well, I would be this time, she said.
Nuh-uh. When Kathy came back, she acknowledged her mistake, said she’d had a long day. She did not have a cup of water with her, and she wanted to save some time, so she added water to the ice chips I was allowed to have, the chips that kept me able to swallow. And with water in my cup, the ice would melt, and who knew when she’d come with a replacement cup of chips? I felt a little scared. “Oh, please don’t put water in that cup. If I have no ice, I can’t swallow.”
“You’ll be able to swallow. Take two sips of water before you take the pills.”
“That’s not what I mean. I can’t swallow. In general. And if you put water in my cup, it will melt all my ice chips.”
She went on and on about how it’s OK for me to have water to take pills, not understanding that my concern was that she’d not return all night with more ice chips. When I’d finished with the pills, she dumped the water out of my cup and returned the remaining ice. “That’s all I wanted,” I said with exhausted breath. “I just didn’t want my chips to melt, or I’d not be able to swallow until you brought them back.”
Adding to my concerns that night was my insomnia. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep with all the nurse’s and tech’s comings and goings and the noise in the hallway outside my door, but I asked them to close the door anyway so that I could try before the Ambien arrived. Every time I did drift off to sleep, Gerald, the tech, would knock on my door before entering to check my IVs or change the bag from my drain—things for which I did not need to be awake.
“Why do you knock?” I asked him.
“Well, I don’t want to disturb you.”
“But it’s eleven o’clock! I’m trying to sleep, and knocking is the thing that’s waking me up!” (I add exclamation points here, but I doubt my voice could have risen to that level of excitability.)
Gerald says he can put a note on my door, if I prefer, but it’s common courtesy to knock before entering a closed room.
Dude, I just had back surgery. I can’t walk unassisted, and I have a catheter. What could you possibly disturb besides my sleep?
I had forgotten my ear plugs, but I managed to fall asleep for a moment before the IV fluids ran out and started beeping incessantly. I waited a full five minutes before buzzing the nurse. Twice. It had been beeping nearly twelve minutes when a different nurse yelled in to me that my nurse was taking care of something and would be down in a few minutes.
I started crying. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked. How dare I.
“Well, let’s see,” I said without a trace of sarcasm. “I had surgery today. I’m in pain. Every time I fall asleep, someone knocks on my door or lets my IV run out, and now I’ve been listing to this beeping at midnight for the past fifteen minutes.”
Nurse Kathy came in, once again apologetic and full of excuses about her busy day and busy night. She brought my Ambien (if I’d been asleep, she’d have awakened me to give me a sleeping pill) and roughly rolled me over, while the other nurse attempted to remove my catheter. Had Kathy gotten her handiwork in the mix, I’d probably be peeing into a tube for the rest of my life.
The pair of them threatened to cut off my morphine, too, and would have, if I’d said I was farting.
Some time in the middle of the night, a new nurse came in. I think she was followed by the clatter and pomp of a marching band. She began erasing my board and announcing loudly that she was Nurse So-and-So, and this was her shift.
She was erasing my hospital phone number, my room number, and all the information previously written on the white board, where most of the nurses just erased the spots after Nurse: and Tech: to put in their own team’s names. “Why are you erasing that?” I asked in my middle-of-the-night stupor.
“This is the way I do my board,” she said. She needed to awaken me to announce her exalted presence is all. And I got her just in time to save my PT appointment times.
In the morning, Lisa and Stephanie, the picture perfect nurses, were camped outside my door in a mini nurse’s station designed, it seemed, to undo all the damage done by the renegade band of evil night nurses and make us all believe we were simply the victims of a bad morphine drip.