Being a writer can be risky in so many ways. Throughout March, we're hearing from writers who tell us just how risky it can be. Today's post comes from ex-nurse Ira McGuire.
Image source: Flickr / harwig
I was a nurse for seven years, at the now demolished Gold Coast Hospital, a grey, concrete building that stood at Nerang Street. My memories of nursing are both good and bad, and I guess the experience has left me with some emotional scars; scars that I have not picked open previously. Before its demolition, I often drove past the vacant and ghost-like building and imagined walking its empty corridors and wards once more. I could almost still hear the squeak of the rubberised soles of nursing shoes against the lino, the ding of the elevator doors, the mass-cooked meals scenting the wards with pumpkin puree and meat stew, how the trolleys transporting patients made a distinct sound when they were wheeled from lino to the carpet of my ward.
Nursing is a funny career. You are supposed to care, and be caring, but you can’t care too much. You can’t get attached to patients, because that compromises patient care – you might stop being objective. I was eighteen and clueless when I started and not long into it there were many moments when I regretted my choice of career. The earliest pangs of regret, experienced with my first patient, rose in goosebumps along my arms. She was a folded and angular looking woman with dementia. She needed her morning shower, after a night of cursory checks and cleaning by the night staff. I had never seen an old person naked, let alone someone completely dependent on me to thoroughly clean her, dry her, dress her, wheel her back to her bed and then wait long minutes for assistance to lift her back into her bed.
I recall standing in the shower recess. She sat on a plastic wheel-chair with a toilet opening. My nursing and teaching supervisor stood next to me and must have given me some kind of directives. I couldn’t move because I could not quite believe what I was supposed to do: I did not want to touch this hunched-over stranger, to feel her clammy and papery looking skin, thinly stretched over bony limbs covered in purple bruising. Her scent was musty. Her mouth was gaping open. She shook with tremors, or maybe because she was cold. I had to reach past her to turn on the taps, my plastic apron crinkling as I leaned forward and tried not to look at her, because if I did, I was sure I would cry with fright and shame at her useless body in front of me.
To this day, I want to go back to that woman and tell her I am sorry. Sorry I did not know how to act. I want to tell her I didn’t mean to look at her in disgust: I had yet to learn the trick of keeping face and emotions impassive, to be able to pretend I didn’t notice the scent of rotting flesh, death, infections, blood, vomit, human excrement. I had yet to perfect the art of neutral observation – to shower, with perfect nonchalance, the young man with two plaster-cast arms, whose girlfriend had forgotten to remove the cock-ring he still sported, two days after his accident. I would say, across time, that later I became so good at pretending nothing affected me, I could barely feel the things I should have. There was a reason why alcohol and hard partying were a regular part of my time off.
At the time, in the early nineties, the Gold Coast Hospital had a staff bar on its grounds. It was operated on a voluntary basis by staff, with cheap drinks, cheap décor and a dank scent. On a Friday afternoon it was the place to be, the nurses’ quarters across from the bar emptying onto the grassed area in between, doctors, physios, and all auxiliary staff coming down after shifts and on their breaks. We had a strong camaraderie, like I imagine the defence forces have. You spend time with people who understand without explanations. On the occasional late shift when I couldn’t get the evening off, the music from the bar would drift teasingly up to the seventh floor.
‘What’s that racket?’ a patient once asked. He had his leg in traction and had been placed by the window, to alleviate the boredom of the next few weeks with us.
‘The hospital bar,’ I said, going by the window to try and catch a glimpse of the partying below.
‘A bar on hospital grounds? Isn’t that kind of a contradiction?’
It didn’t feel like a contradiction. We called it mental health, a way to blow off steam. When the nurses’ quarters were abolished, and eventually the bar, too, the atmosphere changed. Everything became more clinical, more professional, and I felt myself growing steadily into stone.
Sometimes masking my feelings was difficult, even later when I had learned how. Especially in child-abuse cases. During one shift, I was called to the children’s ward because they were short-staffed. I was called in to special care a baby. ‘Special care’ meant you were in charge of that one patient. The baby I was in charge of, had been brought in due to malnutrition and other related problems.
The children’s ward was painted with bright and uplifting murals. Pooh Bear smiled down on passing children and their IV stands. Balloons bumped along the ceiling line. A rainbow stretched along one wall, its colours somewhat faded from cleaning chemicals. The staff on this ward wore large, clown-like name buttons with child-friendly pictures attached. The staff smiled a lot, despite the noise of crying and yelling.
One of the problems with this baby was that her little nightcap was completely stuck to her scalp – from lack of washing and not removing the cap for perhaps a week, perhaps many weeks. I was still young, and had hardly dealt with children, let alone babies. The baby screamed each time anyone touched her. She wasn’t used to physical contact, and so bathing her to try and remove the nightcap became the objective for my entire eight-hour shift, painstakingly peeling the soiled, cotton cap from her scalp, soaking it with warm water, without immersing the baby itself.
Thinking back on it now, I would have approached that baby differently, instead of with apprehension and fear. The poor baby would have sensed both – she was probably already hard-wired from experience to be on alert for cold hands and strange handling. Now, as a mother, seeing that baby would break my heart.
After the shift on the children’s ward, I never saw that baby again, never found out what became of her – nor did I know the fate of my first patient. They are both illuminated in a logbook of faceless injuries, illnesses, traumas and bed numbers. Perhaps the two memories are foregrounded because at the time I felt the most helpless and out of depth. Perhaps both patients highlighted my inadequacies and smallness, the way I was merely a bystander in their uncomfortable existence.
Nursing can warp your perspective of what is normal and not normal. It screws with your ability to feel. I have spoken to fellow nurses who cite the same thing: a certain part of you becomes a dead-zone. The dead-zone assures you that safe distance between patient and nurse – that golden objectivity. You can peel back a dressing, exposing the meat, veins and bone of a leg cut open from ankle to upper thigh to prevent compartment syndrome. You cope when a man jumps to his death from the very building supposed to help him. You stay calm during cardiac arrests. You can call a patient’s family, tell them they should make their way to the hospital because their loved one has taken a turn for the worse.
I knew my dead-zone was too large when I could no longer feel any kind of sympathy. I knew I was officially burnt out when I resented my patients, when I felt anger instead of nurturing, when I no longer cried. For a long time after I resigned, I felt as if I were standing on the other side of a pane of glass, removed from the things most people found upsetting.
In the end, nursing did teach me some invaluable and transferrable life skills, like pig-headed resilience, and remaining steady and controlled in emergencies. I still have a very organised, no-nonsense approach to many things, and this is all owing to a regimented way of working through busy shifts. Nursing also gave me a host of experiences to mine for my writing, and for that, I will always be thankful. Patients struggling with humility or grief or heartache are embedded, like sad souvenirs, in my memory. The small and varied miracles performed by doctors and nurses, to make sure a patient lived or kept a limb: there is nothing like the accumulation of unceasing little stories to bring life to the mosaic of fiction.
Ira McGuire is a creative writer, editor and PhD student, and not always in that order.
Catch her over on twitter: @ira_mcguire or on her web: www.iramcguire.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.