The Elephant in the Room

I have been a nurse for nearly 20 years. It is hard to believe, especially considering how many years I have lamented over what a hard job it is. I remember a few years into my career as Florence Nightingale complaining to a friend about my job. The hours, the angry patients, the doctors who didn't appreciate the nurses. I said I should have picked someone else to complain to, perhaps someone who didn't know me as well. His response was, “If you weren’t a nurse, you would be a social worker or a psychologist. You have to help people.” That wasn’t what I was going for in the sympathy department, but he had a point. I am pretty sure I was the only kid in high school packing a First Aid kit. Over the years in my illustrious career, I have been yelled at, sworn at, kicked, thrown up on and pooped on. The latter two being not unlike my other day job as mom. I have emptied bed pans and given bed baths. I have spent more time with other people’s bodily fluids then I have with my own. I have measured and examined and tested stuff better left without description should you be reading this over breakfast. I have also been hugged and thanked. I have been trusted and confided in. I have held someone’s hand as a doctor gave them bad news and cried with husbands, wives or children after their loved one passed on. Over 20 years, I have had a cast of characters walk through my life. People I know I never would have met if I had not been assigned to care for them.

When I was working as a home-care nurse two decades ago, I had the chance to realize how truly special my job is by walking through the door of an elderly couple’s home on a humid August day. The house was pretty beat up on the outside but that hardly prepared me for the inside. On first inhalation, when I entered the house, I was overcome by a stale smell of mothballs and cat urine. The wife who greeted me was about 4 feet tall with white hair pulled into a tight bun at the top of her head. She was thrilled to see me and for a moment I thought perhaps she thought I was a cleaning service. She escorted me to her small kitchen where her husband, my new patient, sat. He greeted me with as much enthusiasm. He held out a thin hand and grasped mine rather tightly and smiled broadly. I looked around the kitchen and saw dishes piled up in the sink and stuff on the counters. I gingerly sat on the chair. I pulled out my paperwork and started my usual spiel on how home care works. They listened intently and only after they asked if I would stay and help did I realize all they cared about was having me there. They weren’t listening to all the mumbo jumbo I was spewing out at them. The husband did need my help and I realized as the visit progressed how scared he was and how scared she was for him. They had been married for nearly 60 years, which seemed then and even now wildly ambitious. They were gentle and loving toward one another and found humor in almost anything. After my second visit, the wife dubbed me “Hollywood.” At the time, I wore sunglasses that were tinted blue and my hair was very long and blonde. I guess I was as close to Hollywood as they were going to get. Whenever she opened the door she would throw her hands up and say "Hello Hollywood!" I had to make several visits with them before they were both comfortable with what they had to do. I always saved their visit for last. The smell seemed to stay with me and although I never really enjoyed being in their home, I truly enjoyed their company. They were always happy to see me. They never complained about a late-day visit. They were never angry and they only did what I asked of them and never ran to their computer to show me what they found on WebMD that made my visit nearly obsolete. The wife was forever dusting off a knickknack from one her shelves and trying to give them to me. Thankfully we were not allowed to accept gifts. She whispered once she wouldn’t tell anyone and tried to put a glass cat in my bag. I blocked her like a lineman and explained I could get into trouble. She backed off. She certainly didn’t want to get me into trouble. On my last visit, I started to explain to them that I didn’t need to come any more. The wife looked rather shocked and the husband started ringing his hands. I was pretty sure I had explained in the beginning I wouldn’t be around long. Medicare doesn’t like you to overstay your welcome. I came to understand that my first visit where I explained I wouldn’t be around long had gone completely over their heads. They had been too worried and all they wanted at that moment was someone to help them, show them what they needed and reassure them it was going to be OK. Eventually the look of shock left them and the wife ran into the living room to dust off a glass elephant the size of my nursing bag. The husband grabbed my hand and gave me a long look with watery blue eyes. He told me I was wonderful and that he would miss my visits. They both hugged me goodbye and I closed the door, leaving behind the stale smell and the glass elephant.

I will always remember those wonderful people. The way the husband held my hand. The way his wife greeted me each visit, as thought I were the second coming. It made me realize that even though I don’t always love certain tasks that come with my job, I do love being able to help someone.

I had judged them by the smell and state of their house when I first met them. I only mentioned once the possibility of someone coming in to help with the house. They declined that with a wave of their hands and I never brought it up again. I almost lost sight of what I was there for on that first day, over come by mess and odor. They never did. They were never worried about how I looked or how I dressed. Thye just took me as I was. They just needed me to be a kind soul and help them. I understood as I closed the door behind me on that last visit, it didn’t matter what was inside the home, what mattered was what I brought through the door and what I left behind.

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