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.

GETTING OUT THE DOOR…

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.

OAK FOREST HAD A HISTORY

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.

AND I HAD A HISTORY WITH OAK FOREST  

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.

NOW I WAS BACK  

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?

AND WHY BECOME A NURSE?

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.

COULD I MEASURE UP?

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?

DYING ALONE AT OAK FOREST 

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.

THEN I MET RONNIE 

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.

WHAT RONNIE TAUGHT ME 

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.

NURSING IS ABOUT PEOPLE MORE THAN MEDICINE 

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.

PHOTO CREDIT: Geri-Pal

Being Truly Healthy Includes Putting Your Phone Away

Being Truly Healthy Includes Putting Your Phone Away

Jonelle Summerfield

Life can sneak up on you. Habits change in increments and you might suddenly realize that your life has changed, that you no longer meet people in stores, no longer enjoy twenty minutes of silence while eating your lunch, no longer make time to call a friend, or enjoy sitting in the sunshine reading a magazine.

We make our own choices, but some of them are subtly made for us. The biggest change in the lives of many Americans is THE CELL PHONE. These instruments can be wonderful.

  • They allow connection to family and friends and an easy way to store the phone numbers for the library, the electrician, the plumber, the doctor etc;
  • They provide a certain amount of security on an journey, short, long, train, car;
  • Today my phone even reminded me of a friend’s birthday; I immediately called her;

But cell phones can also affect our health. You’ve already read about this:

  • They increase stress. Letting a phone always determine what your next action or decision will be takes away from the calmness of personal planning. Interruptions can increase your heart rate and blood pressure.
  • For young people who are trying to find a steady place in the world, info about what others are doing can make them question their own decisions, their place on the planet.These are mental health issues.
  • Eye strain and squinting can develop over time.

But even more importantly, our phones can distract us from basics of LIFE and its values–they can alter some of the good habits we used to have.

Saying hello to people when you are out in the community or even in a busy city connects you with another human. A smile from a stranger can increase endorphins. We were created to connect with others.

But now the ability to order everything online, on a phone and avoid the cityscape, the town center–changes drastically the American custom of walking into a store and shopping. This is not a good thing. Stores and malls provide connection with other humans. You meet people, talk to them, run into friends. Maybe that’s why people who travel to Europe and stay, enjoy the camaraderie of walking to “the shops” frequently for food and just to BE with other people. Yes, we still have the coffee shop, but could that also go away?

My husband and I enjoy going OUT to the theatre now and again, seeing a film on the big screen. But now people are eager to have a home theatre which will again keep them away from community. Come on people–get out there and smile at a stranger!!

Yesterday, I said hello to a fellow in my community, and on a bright Sunday afternoon, he just looked at me, earplugs in his ears. He didn’t hear me, didn’t make a connection. It’s a symbol of a small thing that will have larger consequences.

Eye Contact, Physical Touch, Personal Secrets and Quirks

We also have moved into a cultural phenomenon that allows people to work from home. This can be a good thing–as long as occasionally the folks in the business get together to talk about their progress, to debate ideas, to share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. But even more importantly, to KNOW ONE ANOTHER. How awful to work with someone and not really know that they tell amazing jokes, know more about soccer than you do, or have written poetry all their lives.

Other jobs are geared to personal contact every day. Occupations that require you work out in the community as a teacher, nurse, as a member of the police, fire or social service network. These people have so much contact with others, that they crave the quiet room. And maybe the turned off phone.

The Bottom Line

This morning, with my phone off and a cup of coffee at hand, I read the NEWSPAPER. The physical newspaper. I do this every day. And there was a piece written by an RN, Christie Watson, who is also a novelist and has written a memoir, THE LANGUAGE OF KINDNESS.   She writes that she recently helped an older woman simply by holding her hand, covering her with a blanket and letting her talk about her life. Watson writes: ...nursing remains the most undervalued of all professions. If how a society treats its most vulnerable is a measure of its humanity, then any nurse will tell you that humanity is in trouble. …Compassion and kindness are just slogans to earn likes on Instagram, not career goals. …our cultures promote isolationism and revere narcissism. We have abandoned empathy and community alone with it. 

More and More Lonely People

Talking to another human being for five minutes can brighten their day. It also feeds our hearts, because though we might not be aware of it, we crave connection. That’s why the cell phone is so popular. Okay. Let’s transform that into a more HUMAN connection. Watson writes about a future situation where we might find ourselves nursing a loved one: And at that time, we will understand that the only things that matter in the end are the qualities that unite humanity, ones that are almost but not quite forgotten: compassion and kindness.

What do you think? Can you put your phone away today and talk to someone?

 Thanks to Jonelle Summerfield’s amazing artwork.

What Do Teachers Really Do?

I was a teacher.  I can tell you what teachers really do.  I am a nurse.   I have been in the trenches as a public worker and I know the importance of bargaining power.  

In 1969, when I started my first teaching job, I made $7,350.00.  In present day value at 3% cost of living that’s $25,436.00.   My father-in-law used to tease me that I had the summer off. (Actually I taught summer school to make more money.)  He changed his criticism when he learned what I actually did for that salary:

  • Worked from 7:00 to 4:00.
  • Taught 5 classes of 25-30 students.
  • In teacher-speak had 3 preparations, meaning three different classes  (Humanities, Novel or basic sophomore English, for example) translation: lots of work the night before.
  • Read, corrected and graded papers for these 150 students—translation, worked on the weekends.
  • Presented long works of fiction—translation, read on the weekends.
  • Had to take an extra assignment—like coaching or mentoring, a rule at my school.  Translation: went to games and dances and tournaments on the weekends.
  • Inserted school business and paperwork into each day: attendance reports, notices to student nurse, counselors, deans; reports to principal, department chair; parent-teacher meetings and phone calls; frequent teacher meetings.
  • Created curriculum: tests, assignments, evaluations and interactive learning.

But here is the bottom line for being a teacher—and if the following was true for me, it’s even more true for any teacher working in the classroom today: you don’t know what will come in the door each day you are working.

I taught at Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois.  My school was a microcosm in the early 70s—Italian Americans, African Americans, whites from the south moving up to Chicago for better jobs, children of families whose presence in the suburb for years gave them ownership.   Result: problems—riots, fights, rule-breaking, school closures for safety reasons.  A policeman in the hallways.  Staggered scheduling to avoid having too many students in the building at one time.

And what did we teachers do?  We worked, we taught, we followed all the changes and we did everything we could to help our students.  Everyone one them:

  • the girl in Humanities that told me right out in class that when my husband traveled he was having affairs—interesting way to get out of talking about THE SCARLET LETTER.
  • the boy who came to my classroom every morning and flirted with me in a joking way, but I was only 23 and he was 17.
  • the 9th period coalition whose goal was to break me down in front of the class so they criticized everything I said, questioned everything I tried to teach them for weeks.  I did break down.
  • the kids coming to school sick, unfed, unclean, angry; kids sleeping all through class; kids telling you to f-yourself;
  • the kids who needed love as well as education, who needed someone to stand up for them and give them a chance to get on in the world.

Teachers do that for kids, every day.  And they aren’t someone else’s kids—they are your kids.  And I don’t care if the politicians in Wisconsin secretly set themselves aside because their children go to PRIVATE schools.  Believe me, these same problems occur in those schools and sometimes the teachers are not as well educated and prepared to deal with them.  PRIVATE schools don’t always have as many requirements for teachers because they often cannot pay them as well.

Teaching is a rich and varied profession.  Teaching requires dedication and desire—like medicine—but doctors make a whole lot more than teachers do.

Twenty years ago there was much talk about teachers not being paid enough, not being valued enough.

Now we are forcing teachers into the streets to ask for what they are owed.

STAND FOR TEACHERS and UNIONS and BARGAINING RIGHTS.

STAND FOR NURSES.  What do they do?

  • Nurses run hospitals, work crazy shifts, are there when your mother or father needs to urinate or be suctioned or saved by a Code Blue.
  • Fireman try to keep your house from becoming a total loss.
  • Policemen—enough said.

For those folks who don’t want to pay these members of our middle class, there’s an answer—go live off the grid.  Go to some mountain in Montana or Wyoming.  Teach your children yourself.  Protect your house and don’t even think about needing a hospital.

SUPPORT PUBLIC WORKERS, they work for you.

PS I taught for five years.  When I stopped to raise my children, I had only a $2,000 increase in salary.  What do teachers really do?  They work long hours for you and your children.

Want more?  Read: WHAT TEACHERS WANT YOU TO KNOW 

Thanks to Google Images

My Nursing Rotation at a County Hospital

My Nursing Rotation at a County Hospital

Was I ready to care for a patient in the ventilator unit? I would soon find out.

It was early morning at the county hospital.  I was in my 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 very present, 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.  This was my job, my current rotation for nursing school.  And it had its consequences.

My stomach cramped each morning as I pulled on white pants and 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.

Oak Forest had history.  The maze of hallways and equally confusing basement corridors revealed its original existence as a U.S. Army Base, later used 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 for the better.

And I had a history with Oak Forest.  In high school I joined an organization whose Sunday project was to wheel Oak Forest patients to chapel.  I knew little of hospitals, except for a childhood surgery.  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, spend precious moments with them.  That only morning 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 again.

Now I was back at Oak Forest.

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?   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 the windows down I would drive out of the endless parking lot, blast my radio, then look up at the budding trees in the true-blue sky.  Really, what was I doing here?  I wanted to bolt.

I rinsed the bedpan.  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.  Well, that was the most logical explanation.  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 died, 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 right then in that patient bathroom my goals were illusive and shaky.  I knew 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 bravely reaching to the spring sky as my son and I ran through the yard laughing about lunch under the apple tree or a bike ride.  Did my patient in the next room still have some amazing pictures of his past life floating around?  Maybe a woman he 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 are 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, you come face to face with death; you see its relentless grip.  Like caring for an old 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.

There can also be endless struggle.  Ronnie’s chart read: Twenty-two year old black male, gunshot wound to C-2, quadriplegia.  When I stood by his bedside he was groggy from drugged sleep.  He looked at me and something like a jolting pain flashed across his face.   Then it was gone.  It wasn’t physical pain but the pain of awareness and remembering.  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.

Oak Forest Hospital.  Death, but also life.  I fumbled for the list of 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 in the next room, the life I was caring for.

He had me.  But again, that was all he had.  I had a family.  I had power over my arms and legs.  I could enter nursing school at 43 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.

I learned about living in nursing school.  On that particular day,  because of those few hours of caring for a solitary man, because of those days of my rotation at Oak Forest Hospital, because of 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.  A single fortunate day that made me a better mother to my baby son and my family.  One that would color and affect all the other days—birthdays, graduations, weddings, the landmarks of life.   For then I was able to wipe away 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 then hold on to it—a precious gift.

I walked back into my patient’s room.  Now I truly knew what I was doing there.  He had me and I had him.  He relied on me and I stayed and helped him.  In doing so, I helped myself.

Thanks to Google Images