The movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, became popular the year I was working on my hospital’s med/surg psych ward as a nursing student. While this cult classic raised awareness about injustices in mental institutions, the public assumed all administrative nurses were cut from the same cloth as the film’s RN whose name rhymed with wretched. On more than one occasion, I had to restrain myself when someone said, “Bet you’re Nurse Ratched, ha, ha, ha. Only kidding.”
In contrast, my head nurse, Lillian, was calm and soft-spoken, college educated — with zero tolerance for the verbal abuse portrayed in Cuckoo’s Nest. When one surgeon informed a patient about an operation for his second below-the-knee amputation, the doctor laughed, “You’ll have a matching set now and can ride a motorcycle.” The patient cried. Under Lillian’s leadership, the patient’s nurse felt empowered to march up to the doctor and tell him, “Your behavior was inappropriate.” Speechless, the surgeon walked off the unit, and we cheered as soon as the door locked behind him.
Lillian’s advocacy extended to another patient, one whom the medical establishment had evaluated as hopeless. Michael was a normal twelve-year-old until he smoked marijuana laced with PCP, ending up in a deep catatonic state. I can still see his dark, brown eyes, handsome baby face and smooth, chestnut skin. Lillian instructed us to work with Michael, stimulate him, get him to communicate, move, anything. As we lifted Michael’s lethargic form from bed to chair, we talked to him with the expectation he might start answering. Nurses brought music in and played cassette tapes for him. We fed and bathed him, did passive range of motion exercises on his extremities and used frequent position changes with heel protectors to prevent skin breakdown. Chap stick kept his lips moist.
I didn’t see Michael for several months because I was assigned to different patients. One day, I saw a new patient in his room and figured Michael had moved to his permanent psych residence, proving the original diagnosis correct. I’d sure miss him.
Shortly thereafter, two people dressed in street clothes walked onto the unit. This was unusual: most of our patients had lost touch with the outside world and rarely had visitors. To this day, I am still shocked, but grateful, that Michael and his mother returned to thank the nurses who had taken such good care of him.