Game-Changer: My Nursing Rotation at Oak Forest

My Nursing Rotation at a County Hospital

It was early morning at the county hospital. I was in my first patient’s bathroom, measuring his urine output. He was a comatose patient, part of his head blown away by a gunshot, his body curled in upon itself with contractures, as bodies do when they no longer work in the world. They seek a smaller space, hunger for the womb.

My body was tense, moving quickly, though not always deftly, to care for this man who breathed with the aid of a machine, a man among many in the ventilator unit at the county facility–Oak Forest Hospital, in Illinois. Caring for these patients and others would be my job for this six week rotation. I was in nursing school. Everything I experienced would have consequences.


My stomach cramped each morning as I pulled on white pants, shirt and my student smock. I arrived at my son’s sitter early—a reflex I couldn’t explain. Maybe this rotation held echoes of those fear-filled dreams when your legs won’t work and you can’t run up a hill or walk down a street. Because when I parked my car each day for this six week period, I wasn’t sure I would make it into the building.


The maze of hallways and equally confusing basement corridors revealed the hospital’s original purpose as a U.S. Army Base, and later a place to house the poor and mentally ill of Chicago. Health care in those early years was custodial at best–and many of the patients ended their stay in a monument-free potter’s field behind the thick-walled buildings. Now it was a county medical facility whose reputation had changed, I hoped,  for the better.


In high school I joined an organization whose Sunday project was to wheel Oak Forest patients to the chapel. I knew little of hospitals, but I signed on. I was sixteen and in the end a complete failure.

The hallways echoed with footfalls and the cries of people in pain or people just needing to cast their voices into the air–hoping for something—a few words from another human who would come to their lonely rooms. That one morning that I went, a feeble woman collapsed against me, her cane clattering to the floor. I grabbed at her, feeling her boney arms and chest. She wore the same blue and green floral bathrobe that hung in my closet. I never went back. I wrote about the visit in Creative Writing class and for an hour my reaction, which was not a good one, was discussed.


In my patient’s bathroom, I looked up and saw my face in the mirror above the sink. My forty-five year old face. Pale skin, hair disheveled, my eyes staring. I said aloud, What am I doing here? Why had I chosen this as a second career? I loved nursing school. But this? Maybe I wanted an answer that would allow me to wash my hands and walk out of the room. I could escape to my car where with windows down, I would drive out of the endless parking lot, blast my radio, look up at the budding trees in the true-blue sky.  Really, what was I doing here?


I rinsed the bedpan. At that time, I had two amazing daughters, one in high school, the other in college. I had a loving husband who worked long hours for us in an office in the city. And I had my son, born when I was 42, a longed-for child. Why was I leaving him with a sitter to plunge myself into the intricacies of anatomy and physiology, to memorize the Krebs cycle and the bones in the body, to understand the workings of each human organ?  Would I truly remember the myriad pathologies I was being exposed to and the medications and protocols used to cure them?

I must. Medicine had become an obsession which had its roots in my father’s death, the most logical explanation I could find. He died of a myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack, when I was three. As I grew, I plagued my mother with questions trying to understand why he left me.

Coronary artery disease brought on by genetics, stress and a high cholesterol diet—eventually those were my conclusions. Some logic entered my life when the pieces of such an overpowering puzzle began to fit. But it wasn’t enough. Something pushed from inside me—a yearning that might also help me care for the greatest gift each of us possesses—our own human body.

For me it was always more than brush your teeth if you want to keep them; eat carrots to help your eyes; wear sun block. A psychologist might analyze my present career choice and accuse me of trying to trade the sorrow of my father’s loss for some control over my own life. That person might be on track.


But in that patient bathroom my goals were illusive and shaky–because there was a square of sunshine falling on the wooden floor in my family room. I could almost feel its warmth, see my garden beyond, the daffodils shaking their bright heads, the grass welcoming us as my son and I ran through the yard laughing about lunch under the apple tree.

Did my patient in the next room still have some amazing pictures of his past life floating around? A woman he had loved, her hair dancing around her face. Maybe a stream where he fished with a friend. Could that portion of his brain that still made his heart pump and his blood perfuse his organs, could it give him something besides unconsciousness and contractures and a look on his face that wasn’t about peace yet wasn’t about anger either?


You don’t learn about death in nursing school. Surely you’re able to list the things that cause the human body to give up—fluid filling the lungs, heart muscle dying. Merely words.

In the hospital, at Oak Forest, I came face to face with death, saw its relentless grip. On a different day, I was assigned to an elderly woman whose chart predicted she could die on my shift. I monitored her vitals and breathing. I knew what to do if she did die, physical things—wash the body, wrap it. I remembered lectures about the importance of kindness toward family members as they witness a loved one die. But this woman had no one. And death hovered.


On another day, Ronnie was my patient. His chart read: Twenty-two year old black male, gunshot wound to C-2, quadriplegia. When I stood by his bedside he was groggy from a drugged sleep. Then he opened his eyes, looked at me and something like a jolting pain momentarily flashed across his face. It wasn’t physical pain but the pain of awareness and remembering on awakening. He could only move his head.

He forced a smile, then fought the ventilator tube, riding breaths to get his message out— “Nice, nice. They like me here, see. They send you. Ronnie gets what he wants.” Snappy and cool, setting the limits the way he saw them. Giving him some control, because he had none over any other part of his life experience.


I fumbled for the notes in my pocket—the report given to me by my nursing teacher when my shift started. Those few scribbled words described my patient, the man, the life I was caring for.

He had me. But again, as far as I knew as I stood there and smiled at him–that was all he had. I had a family. I had power over my arms and legs. I could enter nursing school in my forties and learn about the filtering capabilities of the kidney, the powerful functions of the brain. I could plant a garden, make love to my husband, enjoy a glass of wine. I could turn from my tired face in the mirror and complete my duties for this man—bathe him, push nutrients through his stomach tube, talk to him.


During that rotation on the ventilator unit at Oak Forest Hospital, I learned about living. Because of those few hours of caring for Ronnie and and others at Oak Forest, and the years beyond when I would continue to love and help people as a nurse and as a person living in the world, my life moved forward not backward.

I came to realize that I’d graduated from running away at 16, to embracing during those difficult days, a life that would make me a better mother to my baby son–a better person overall. You could call it a landmark experience that would color and affect all the others. For I was able to undo a past failure, to steady and tighten a loose bolt in the foundation of my character. Each of us has such a day in our living. We only need to search for it and hold on to it.

I no longer looked in the bathroom mirrors at the hospital and questioned myself. I came to know what I was doing there. My patients had me and I had them. They relied on me and I stayed and helped them and in doing so, I helped myself.

Thanks for reading. For some of you, this has appeared on Boomer Highway before.


Know Your History, Know Yourself

Looking back is looking inside yourself; knowing your history helps you to know yourself.

I like looking back. I have photos placed throughout my home that help me travel to the past. And recently, after a major downsizing and move to a smaller home footprint, I created nostalgia shelves that hold photos of my mother and father, my husband and I as newlyweds, my children and grandchildren and tokens from my children’s childhood. And of course, they make me nostalgic.

Know Your History, Know Yourself

That’s a concept! —someone might say—a concept you have to be prepared for. Because nostalgia is both pleasure and sadness—feelings that come simultaneously as the past rises in memory and tugs us back to experiences we often wish we could have again. Like today. A close friend’s daughter gave birth to her first child, and being “modern and up-to-date,” her labor was reported to us in a series of text messages. I thought of her off and on all day, but I also remembered my own labors.

There were no cell phones then and we truly surprised everyone when my husband finally sprinted from the delivery room to call and announce the birth of our daughter, her weight and length, hair and eye color. It would be weeks before there were photos for far away friends and relatives. To see her you had to stop over and visit!

(Obviously, for others of us, nostalgia sometimes brings pain. The plethora of memoirs is a testament to that. But sometimes going back is necessary for healing. We pull from the past those things that helped us get to where we are now and we honor that.)

But though we have the amazing ability to garner information from the internet (which I have done for this post) and to live other people’s lives through platforms like Facebook–truly living, plunging into, experiencing and finally understanding our own lives is what we’re here for. So let’s make that happen.

How do we do that? Some answers would include meditation or prayer. My husband would advocate giving of ourselves to others.  

1. So let’s talk to each other. It’s a common complaint among my generation that people are focusing two much on their “little machines” and not looking across the table into the eyes of those they care about. I could fill this post with photos of moms walking babies and talking on their phones. The ultimate would be the wedding ceremony where the bride and groom are on their phones—only looking up now and again to exchange their vows. What happened to falling into each others’ eyes?

2. And let’s make more of an effort to engage on a bigger level. I so admire families that are separated by distance, but who make the point of weekly phone calls (with or without a “face-time” component), and who share both their joys and their sorrows with family members. That’s the glue that holds us together. Sharing the negatives. Internet platforms often bend to the positive side of things. Ain’t my life grand? Look at me–look at what I’m doing. But when they walk away from the “picture” of that life, what is it really? Because we want each person’s life to have a solid base, one that can bear you up when you encounter illness, divorce, money problems, death. True relationships save lives.

3. And for the purpose of this post, knowing your history and thus knowing what positive experiences helped “build” you into the person you are should be shared within your family. If my older brother went back, he would find books and music. Bookshelves in his room held volumes that I borrowed and read and he haunted a local store that sold records. There he listened to classical music and over the years became a lover and purchaser of thousands of recordings. His life work: professor of English literature. My younger brother would find baseball, hockey and other sports–and music. He has worked in the music business since graduating from college and of course still loves and participates in sports.

I would find books, books and more books. My history is welded to reading, writing and teaching. My mother shared her love of books with me and I shared them with my children. Nostalgia, nostalgia. Here are some examples of the very early reading that helped “build” my life. I am forever grateful to my mother. She knew what she was doing.

The Maida Books. This was a series that my mother owned. Written by Inez Haynes Gillmore Irwin, they first appeared in 1910 with Maida’s Little Shop. I still remember being comfy on the living room sofa reading this book and often telling my mother how much I loved it. The Maida books reflected Irwin’s belief in feminism and social change. Maida’s wealthy father provides Maida and her friends with a series of alternative environments for living and learning. My older daughter read those in the series that my mother owned, the covers fragile and old. Today she proudly cares for them.

Anne of Green Gables. This series is the favorite of my other daughter who owns all the books and fulfilled a lifetime dream last summer when she and her family visited Prince Edward Island. Written by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, the first title appeared in 1908. It is the story of Anne Shirley, age 11, a young orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who have a farm on PEI and who had intended to adopt a boy to help them. The novel recounts how Anne steals the hearts of the Cuthberts and everyone else in the small town. An August article in the New York Times by Ann Mah recounts the emotional experience of loving the books and visiting PEI.

Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys. Louisa May Alcott wasn’t sure she wanted to write a book for young girls, but utilizing shared experiences with her real life sisters, she created four of the most endearing characters ever created—Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. This novel was published in 1868 and follows the lives of the four sisters as they navigated growing up during the American Civil War. Alcott went on to write Little Men and Jo’s Boys after the success of the first book. My mother loved the books and named me after the Beth character.

The Boxcar Children Series. Written by Gertrude Chandler Warren, the books are about Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, four orphaned brothers and sisters who mysteriously appear in a small town on a warm summer night. No one knows who they are or where they came from. Frightened to live with a grandfather they have never met, the children make a home for themselves in an old abandoned red boxcar they discover in the woods. From there readers discover the strength and creativity of these children to live on their own in their forest home. One critic wrote: All elementary school children will love this book series. Every child dreams of running away and living in the woods at some time, and these kids have done it. Fantasy fulfilled through a book!

Thanks for reading and looking back with me. Knowing where we have been is the best way to help us decide where we want to go and how we want to get there. If you have a book that helped pave your life journey, please share. Below is a cartoon from the New Yorker that I am thrilled I found. I remember coming across it and saying YES THAT’S HOW IT WAS. Of course the child is reading Little Women.

Know Your History, Know Yourself

Thanks to Perry Barlow for his nostalgic cartoon.