Sometimes when I get mad or sad beyond the normal ups and downs of day to day living, I recover by writing poetry which – naturally – makes much of the work unpublishable.
But the political arena of the last weeks in the USA has led me to more sorrow and anger than I have felt for a long time. It is deeply profound with a collective grief that has become personal. Private and public in the same way the wars, famine, floods, fires, shootings and political shenanigans are to any of us thinking and feeling in the world today. Maybe it is that I not only feel these assaults on women as a woman but also as a nurse. Assuredly an old one, but still active in heart and mind and even on occasion in the physical world.
The governmental legislation occurring in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Mississippi, and beyond, leaning hard to the political far right, and the gamesmanship of these politicians, is chilling and terrifying, and reminiscent of a time when …
In 1967 I was working the afternoon 3-11 p.m. shifts in a major Hollywood hospital in Los Angeles County, California. One busy afternoon, shortly after we had come on duty, after the day nurses had left, we were making rounds and checking on our medical patients and the post-surgical patients returning from the recovery room when a phone call came to the nurses’ station. We were to take an emergency admission who would be scheduled for surgery later that evening. Hardly had I put the phone down when a gurney, carrying a young woman, came out of the lift and was hurriedly pushed onto our floor. The orderlies wheeled the gurney into a double room close to the nurses’ station and tipped the patient onto the empty bed. A clipboard with doctor’s order lay over her body.
“Start IV of Dextrose and Saline and insert a nasogastric tube STAT.” was scrawled on it, with a signature. I hardly looked to whom her admitting doctor was, just focused on the fact that she came from the Emergency Unit. Once unstrapped from the gurney and on the bed, she (I want to call her Helen) began thrashing, screaming, and writhing with abdominal pain, while gagging, trying to release whatever was inside her. Doris, my aide, hurried to get the nasogastric set-up and we called for the IV nurse to come to the floor, Stat.
The other team, of one nurse and an aide, were caught up caring for the remaining patients on the floor and there was no-one else around. Helen was beyond hearing me as I tried to explain what I had to do, for and with, her. She was obviously terrified and aside from her not able to hear me she continued to thrash in the bed. We could not hold her steady. So I slapped her. Not hard but I did slap her and I remember it to my shame to this day. But, still terrified, Helen focused on me for the first time, and our eyes remained locked together from then on.
“I need your help. You have to stay with me and let me do this for you.” Having a nasogastric tube inserted is always unpleasant and there are risks attached to the procedure, making sure the tube enters the esophagus and not the trachea and goes to the stomach and not the lungs. As Doris stood by her (and my) side she stroked Helen’s arm giving her calm comfort. I managed to insert her tube correctly and immediately a torrent of brown fluid came up. The IV nurse arrived and started the intravenous fluids into Helen’s veins.
Soon Dr. L., a gynecologist, arrived. He was quick and brisk but also quiet and reassuring as he spoke. Helen was prepped and soon taken to surgery. Later that evening she returned to us. Dr. L. was tight lipped when he too came back to the floor to write up his notes.
We didn’t talk much at the nurses’ station. I was young and naive enough to only begin to understand what had happened to Helen. Who was with her? She had come to us alone but someone, a friend or family member, had got her to Dr. L. and he had managed to save her life if not her uterus. It was clear this was not the first time he had taken such care of a women. His tired face showed that he feared that it would not be the last. Helen recovered, walking the hall carrying her IV pole, catheter and shame. She discarded the IV and the catheter over the next few days, but maybe she took the shame with her when she was finally discharged.
That was 1967, within so many of our life times. Those of us fortunate enough to have lived within relative control of our bodies need to remember to be grateful. Women around the world today still carry unwelcome and dangerous pregnancies. The thought that so many young people within once enlightened societies could again face such a situation is beyond chilling and beyond poetry.