The OR report said she’d received two units of blood and was still intubated. Given my forty years of ICU nursing, it sounded routine.
I don’t know if I’m a racist. I hope not, but I can’t be sure.
Decades ago, several years into my ICU nursing career, I started my night shift facing three angry adult daughters of an African American woman. The patient had suffered a horrible head wound. My first awareness of her came from smell, not sight. I recognized the odor of infection and tissue death. Her head was swathed in a turban of furacin-soaked gauze dressing her injury.
I confess. I would drive drunk on nights I went clubbing. I’d dance until my knees hurt and drink until the brand of gin in my drinks didn’t matter. With my windows rolled down, I hoped fresh air conjured some semblance of sobriety, in case I encountered a cop. I’d bellow my favorite songs, head hanging out the window. Me. An R.N.
In December 1996, I walked into my urban ICU, before color-coded uniforms, wearing my home-made Santa Claus scrub top, and found myself assigned to T.J. Dalton, a 30-year old victim of a drunk driver. The driver was a recidivist. His small pick-up had hit the bumper of T.J.’s Expedition, touted as being the safest car on the road. T.J.’s car had flipped end over end, shoving T.J. back into the second row of seats.
One week into a three week “staycation,” I enjoyed drinking coffee on the loveseat with my husband, holding his hand and pondering life. We sat in comfortable silence, but an inner turbulence unsettled me. He tapped his foot to some inaudible percussion.
“I’ve got two weeks of vacation left, and I already dread going back to work,” I blurted without thinking, without self-editing.
His foot stilled. “Then don’t,” he said.
I retired last October. After forty years in a cardiovascular ICU, I left the profession I loved. I left, in part, because of the paperwork.
“I need you to come back to the hospital,” I would say over the phone. I would hear a rush of inhaled air, signaling stunned shock. “Is there someone who can drive you?” I would provide only enough details to communicate urgency and allude to the dire nature of the patient’s condition.
After forty years of critical care nursing, I have lost count of how many calls like that I’ve made, of how I perfected the words, of how I danced around the truth, of how I baited and buffered to make sure the person on the other end of the line arrived at the hospital safely. The calls ran together. But one call stood out, because it required no words, and I was its recipient.
I met Terry the day after he sat in the back of a pick-up, joyriding on a busy interstate. A big rig whooshed by, sucked Terry out of the truck bed and slammed him into the side of the semi-trailer before he fell back into the truck. One scalp laceration and a few facial scrapes presented evidence of the accident. The damage occurred inside Terry’s head.
It shames me to admit I practiced the defense mechanism of black humor. During shift change, we joked and wondered if Terry had MFB, or mush for brains. Countless days and doses of diuretics, rehydration, and more diuretics without a twitch, grimace or cough from Terry decimated my hope for his recovery. I bathed him with coarse wash cloths and repented by lavishing his skin with lotion. I talked about sports, music, even Tiger Beat magazine. I prayed for him to a god in which I didn’t quite believe.
I admitted Hiral Jacobs, a twenty-something college student who’d collapsed in her dorm, directly to the ICU from surgery.
“By the way, the patient is Muslim.”