The Work of a Nurse

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Matilde Zacchigna sadlady square

The sign taped to the wall behind her bed read: Patient Is Blind.

That is the first thing I noticed about her and I’m sorry, now, that I stood by her bed awkwardly, hushed and unsure how I was going to care for her. She stared straight forward, eyes fixed, staring at what appeared to be the ceiling but at that moment, I thought, how weird, that someone who is blind would even open their eyes.

I introduced myself, asked her where she was from, how she had slept during the night, if she was experiencing any nausea.

Every patient has a story and while I palpated pulses and peeled back the dressing covering her incision, she pulled me into the story of her life.

“My life hasn’t been easy,” she whispered. “Not being able to see requires someone else to see for you. And sometimes, they only see what they want to see, not what they need to see.”

I nodded, then realized she couldn’t see me, so I said, “I’m sure it has been difficult for you.”

It was a textbook answer, straight from within the cover of Effective Communication, but it seemed to work. As if turning the page, she talked of how she loved to hold her dogs, how one was fluffy and one was short-haired, how she enjoyed sitting on the porch in the spring, smell the peonies on the breeze, how she could listen for hours to smooth jazz, the saxophone beckoning her to feel, to sway, to take her away.

I listened, intrigued how those without eyesight often see more clearly, really, than those with.

That morning, she asked me to explain what was outside her window. She told me about learning Braille. How her mother would still call her on Skype to read to her.

In the afternoon, her husband came to visit.

He was a big man with hairy arms.

He wore a sleeveless shirt. Had a scraggly mustache. A potbelly, too.

I was helping her sit up in bed when he first swore at me.

"You're hurting her," he spit.

"She needs to sit up. Having a surgery makes everything more tender. We're going as slowly as possible," I reassured.

So she sat at the edge of the bed, panting, perspiring and tired and I asked if she was dizzy.

"A little," she gasped.

"See, she shouldn't be sitting up, you #*&@!" his voice was rough in my ear, still angry.

"It's good for the lungs." My voice was shaking. "And the doctor said..."

"Honey," she gasped, "He's just doing his job."

And that's when he slapped her, hard, across the face. The sting was loud, like I'd been hit too.

Stunned, I laid her back down in bed as she began to cry. An assistant hurried to call security and as they led him away, I stood leaned against the wall, heart beating loud, hands shaking.

The doctor, concerned, ran into the room.

That's when she told us about the shed.

"It's raining," she cried. "It's raining and can you call..." She gripped my hand. "Can you call my husband? I've been a good girl now. I've learned my lesson. I'll be a good girl. Good girl. Good girl. Can you tell him I'll be good? It's raining in here. It's raining and I don't like to be wet but I'm getting wet. Can you ask my husband if I can go back inside? I've been a good girl."

"Can you tell me what your name is?" the doctor asked.

She ignored her. "This pickup bed is hard. I can't..." she's screaming now. "And it's wet. And I don't want to go to the shed. I've been a good girl! Please tell him I've been a good girl!"

"It's not raining. And you're in the hospital." The doctor glanced at me, nervous.

I watched the oxygen reading, wondering if her brain wasn't getting enough.

"It's sprinkling on my face." She's sobbing now, hands shaking. She squeezes my hand. Hers is wet with tears. "I'm soaked already."

That's when I notice, in all that's happened over the past twenty minutes, she's wet herself.

Others arrive to help change her. They introduce themselves and she doesn't take notice but when she's unclothed and the assistant is wiping her clean, she screams, "Turn that video camera off, you sick son of a #&*%! Turn. It. Off." She grits her teeth, angry tears coursing down her cheeks.

"I need to talk to my husband," she screamed at all of us. "This is just like all the stories I've heard. You will take me, kill me, and dump my body somewhere and I'll never be found again. I've been a good girl and he'll take care of me, if I can just talk to him."

Some call it psychogenic amnesia, where the mind blocks out painful memories as if they never happened and only brings them back, distorted and confusing, during traumatic events. I call it one of the closest times I've brushed arms with the devil.

She eventually went home with him, the man with hairy arms and a potbelly.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

* * * * *

For months, in the afternoons when I had a spare moment at the nurses' station or when I was driving home from work, I'd think about her. And I'd pray.

I'd pray for her safety, for the abused, the mistreated, for those who cannot see, for the ones who have taught me to see what I need to see, not just what I want to see.

And then one night, a dream came:

The pickup bed is cold. Rain slaps angry against its metal. And then the engine roars and I hear her crying as it bumps down the lane...away from me.

I wake in a cold sweat. The sheet is drenched beneath me.

I pray as hard as I've ever prayed before because I think maybe it's happening again to her, right now, at three in the morning, and I'm the only person thinking about her, the only one whispering her name to the heavens.

Image by Matilde Zacchigna. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Modified reprint by Duane Scott.

Note: If you suspect abuse and need assistance for yourself or someone else (in the United States), call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233). Concerns about elder abuse, find your state contact. International readers suspecting elder abuse, contact the International Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse. To report child abuse in the United States, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).