by Jeanne Arnold
One Friday night years ago, I entered the emergency room with my camera ready at that fateful hour when the taverns close and the drunks hit the streets. I hung around until 3 a.m. The only emergency incidents that night had to do with anal sphincters—and that was hardly photographic.
An elderly lady walked in complaining of dark stools and some pain.
“Do you have a private physician?”
“Well, yes, but it was too late to call,”she answered.
An ER nurse called him and the physician grumbled test orders and granted permission for the emergency resident to take charge. A technologist was called in, the patient was placed on a cart, and when the tech arrived at 1:42 a.m., he was given a sample of her stool to analyze in the lab. Perhaps her loneliness aggravated her minor complaint into a genuine attack. Maybe she needed a friend more that a treatment. Relating those feelings to stool samples may oversimplify this woman’s problem. I marveled at the patience the medical team maintained.
I wandered about the halls, talking with nurses, aides and night staff personnel while I waited for something big to break loose in the ER. Drawn to a light at the end of the hall in the medical intensive care unit, I walked toward it to find out what was going on in the bright room beyond, passing quiet, dark rooms emitting only sleeping patients’ sounds.
I looked through the open door and saw two green-robed nurses bathing a youth, preparing him for a meal, keeping him alive with electric wire sensors and plastic tubes. The nurses responded to me with a smile as I stood outside the room watching. The youth, who had been critically injured in a car crash, was moved on his side to be bathed and exercised and massaged. When he saw me in the door, he acknowledged my presence with staring concentration. Only his observing eyes moved; they did not signal understanding.
“He’s really alert tonight,” said one nurse.
“He’s much better than he was.” They scurried about the intensely lit room massaging his muscles, exercising his limbs and helping him to urinate. This Christ-like figure is a 13-year-old, blond, tall boy incapacitated by the unexpected events of a crash where his father was killed, his mother widowed with three other children, and his future hanging on the hope that he’ll respond to this nurturing environment. They connected a tube of green food to a plastic hose through his nose and gently forced the nutrients through the tube and into his stomach. The green in the tube matched the green of the gowns covering the nurses’ regular white uniforms.
The boy’s eyes never left me as I, watching in return, observed the sterile-robed women caring for this lamb of a youth who was covered only around his loins so he could be easily moved and cleaned and fed and maybe feel the love they would convey to help him understand that somebody wanted him to live.
Irrational optimism kept these nurses nursing. I sensed that they would never give up.
I turned away and walked down the steps to the surgical intensive care unit that seemed dark and calm except for the shaded lights of the nurses’ station and the sudden sound of clatter and splash jarring the silence. An elderly man had reached for a water pitcher and knocked it over in the attempt.
All was quiet again, and I went back down to the ER. “Nothing’s new, Jeanne. We’ll have to have you come here every night. You’re good luck.”
Then the phone rang and a male aide answered, listened intently, cupped his hand across the phone and repeated the incident to the nurse. “This gal was walking home with her boyfriend when he had a pain and an uncontrollable urge to defecate. He did, next to the sidewalk, and she’s worried about him and doesn’t know what to do.”
The nurse raised her eyebrow, tilting her head at the side and said quietly from the corner of her mouth, “Tell her to get a new boyfriend—” and then quickly added, “Have her bring him in and we’ll talk with him.”
The resident physician had been awakened that night for two excrement problems, yet they were human problems and they were responded to. Even the med tech who was dragged out of his house twice on a frosty night was happy because he had two calls—that earned him double pay. He had managed to get home between calls, which gave him double credit for the fecal matter he had to analyze.
I walked through the shadowed, quiet halls once more. Only tiny rays of call lights from patient doors to nursing station, only the swooshing sound of nurses’ nylon hose brushing as they walked on their soft-soled shoes answering patient call lights.
I went home feeling happy for a quiet night. I had missed the excitement of the intense impact of emergency room trauma, yet I gained insight into the real nightlife of the hospital. The knifing and the gunshot wounds would make the news, yet it’s the shit work that people need done most often.
Twenty minutes after I left, the surgical intensive care nurse who had wiped up the spilled water and picked up the pitcher found her elderly patient dead. She remembered what he had said then, that she shouldn’t bother replacing the water. He had had enough, he told her. After she found him, she covered his body and called the resident doctor who pronounced him dead. She and her aide put the body into a steel box, its cover level with the gurney top draped with a cloth. It looked like she was pushing an empty cart as she wheeled him down the hall, onto the elevator and down to the morgue where his name on a tag tied to his toe would soon be read by a funeral director.
And upstairs on the fifth floor, twins were born to a young couple beginning their family and their family’s claim to their own kind of immortality.
Happily expecting to find
the beauty that’s within,
yet preparing for a shock,
I await the discovery
of who I really am.
Graphics by Mary Nelson
Next week— Hospital Traumas and Other Delights
UNsung Women: the UN-known Herstory History
Loreen Greene Mohr is our SUNG woman for March. More UNsung women nominees will be selected from April through June, 2022.
Submit written nominations about past or present women from Racine/Kenosha whose contributions to the wellbeing of our families, churches, schools, communities and beyond who have not or have been UNder acknowledged.
The nominator is asked to provide:
• answers to Who, What, When, Where, How and Why details of your nominee’s herstory in a document or resume format.
• photographs, drawings, illustrations to enhance herstory;
• a reference person or documentation serving as evidence of proof.
Submit your nomination details to <email@example.com> with your name and where you may be reached.
Please do not nominate women who have already been “sung.”