Following Florence

Recorded and knit together by WSM
First aired on KWMR.org May 13 2020

In this new reality, a phrase that crosses my lips at least once a week is “Incandescent with Rage.” Usually by the time I come to write I have calmed down. But the feeling bubbles up and like waves rolling into the shore, heralds a possible storm at sea. This week it began – again – at Matt Hancock. A concise question from the Labour MP for Tooting, DR. Rosena Allin-Khan, about the continuing shortage of Personal Protective Equipment that was supposedly shipping from Turkey led him to respond that she should “Mind her Tone”.

And so it is UK people and businesses who step forward. On Princess Street there is a small sewing shop now closed. Walking past in the mid-afternoons we could see young children enjoying their after-school sewing programs. But the owner, Roz Davies, has gathered her staff together and, with a small army of off-site volunteers, been busy making gowns, scrubs and bags for the staff of The Royal Free Hospital. Nurses can put their scrubs in the bags for laundry and thus not contaminate their homes. This enterprising spirit has been repeated up and down the country by such shops as ‘Sew Much Fun’ and larger companies like Burberry. But wait a minute! This is the National Health Service. National, as in: owned and paid for by the UK government with our taxes. Would that not presume that the government would pay for and provide all the Personal Protective Equipment that the staff need? Ah well you see – that brings up an incandescent moment.

The testing for ‘essential workers’ has been abysmal failure. To find out if you are considered essential and how to get tested – you need a computer – where you can try to access a self-referral portal and fill out the 35 page form. Alternatively, try to book an appointment at one of the supposedly 50 testing sites open throughout the country. The nearest can be several miles away. And who is running them?

God Bless the Army. Newsreel footage now shows young soldiers with flapping blue plastic aprons over their army fatigues, standing, masked and gloved while waving cars forward. Then, while clutching papers and test tubes, they lean into car windows and poke swabs into open breathing mouths. No figures have yet been published as to how many of these young, partially trained, men and women have succumbed to the virus.

Throughout the week it was announced that The Prime Minister would outline his road map for going forward on Sunday evening. (Thereby cleverly missing a dissection by Andrew Marr on his Sunday Morning political broadcast.) We turned on the Television at 7 p.m. to see Boris in Blue. A navy suit, pale blue shirt and discrete tie. His hair, for those who like to note such things, was combed into a semblance of flattened style. Sitting at an old-fashioned desk with the door open behind him so we could see the elegant chairs and chandler in the room beyond. Did he give the broadcast live on Sunday? No he did not. It was prerecorded. Why was that? I still don’t know. And what did he say? Well a lot of us still don’t know that either. The three other United Kingdom Countries, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all rejected his new message of ‘Stay Alert’ and are continuing with ‘Stay Home and Save Lives’. This could be a moment to reflect that: “When Three Russians tell you that you’re drunk, you might want to lie down.”

But the general message seemed to be, “You‘ve all done a good job and now it is time to go back to work tomorrow. (Later that was corrected to Wednesday as tomorrow was Monday, a bank holiday.) If you can work from home, keep doing that. But if you do have to travel, try not to take public transport but “get on yer bike”.

And there must be a way to keep the natives happy and the country divided. (I’m sorry to sound so politically incorrect but here it is). Essential workers, and some businesses were to reopen, such as – wait for it – garden centers. How does that work? By keeping the home counties happy. They can shop for and work in their gardens and feel that Boris is taking care of them – as they will for him come election time. He must be careful as the warmth of the fire’s dampened faggots are beginning to smolder underneath him.

May 12th is Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday. A day celebrated throughout the world with maybe even with a Google Doodle. This spring five Nightingale hospitals were built in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Harrogate and Bristol. Similar facilities have been set up in Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast.

Frequent hand washing by nurses was an early directive of Nightingale’s and remains one of the most important health messages in this coronavirus pandemic. The new hospitals share many similarities to those that Florence Nightingale designed after returning to England from the Crimean war in 1856. But the main component was nurses. And the lack of nurses, as well as the situation just staying manageable, is what has kept these new pop-up hospitals almost empty. Nightingale also understood “politicians have short attention spans”. She was a quiet woman who would never have shown my emotion. I can’t but feel she might have given me a tight lipped smile of understanding.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad.
Written and read for you by Muriel Murch

From the Florence Nightingale Museum

Grateful in Week Seven

Recorded and knit together by WSM
Photograph by WSM

Week seven of Shelter in Place or Lockdown in London. Whatever we call it, this means remaining vigilant and at home. There is a new sense of ‘wait a minute’ … a new dawning of how life is really changing. Workers on building projects have had enough time off and money is running out. White vans are again parked on the roadside and masked laborers trudge in and out of the buildings. With luck, money will slip into empty pockets by the day’s end.

Meanwhile not only are all retail shops shut but so are most of the services that we have come to rely on. Hair is an optional accessory: some of us have it and some of us don’t, and blessed are those with a hairstylist in the family. Here in Camden, Ossie’s and the younger hip barber shops are all closed. So too are the ladies’ salons. Stylists have all gone home. The phrase ‘Shut up Shop’ has taken on a new meaning. As middle-age recedes, giving way to our senior years, we face the decisions we have made. Some of us have gone silver and others golden. Yet most of us try to do so something. Maintenance has become an almost full-time occupation while ‘You are looking very neat’ could be accepted as a compliment in these times. No longer able to enter the high street chemist’s I turn to the internet and find there is a run on ‘Age Perfect’ from L’Oreal and that Amazon is only allowing one package out with each order. But one is enough for the moment and will take me behind the closed bathroom door for a morning. Soon it maybe time for a pony tail clip.

But others are not so fortunate. The nurses, doctors and auxiliary personal on the front lines of the medical care of the COVID-19 epidemic can give no time to such personal considerations. Showers and laundry are all they can manage, meals are often gifted from the communities they serve. Some staff have even been camped in hotels, isolating themselves away from their families for weeks on end.

As we enter May, and come into Nurses’ week, celebrated around the world for the birthday of Florence Nightingale, I think of us nurses particularly. There are stories, penned in hours of exhausted lonely frustration, by Intensive Care Nurses working on the front lines from London, New York, Europe and throughout the world. These are heart’s weepings at the incredible loss of life they see and the family sorrow they bear witness and give comfort to. It is in writing themselves to sleep they join in comradeship with each other.

When patients are admitted to hospital with a clinical or tested diagnosis of COVID-19, this may be the last time they see their families. The death rate of those admitted to Intensive Care still remains at 50%. So many relatives have no time or way to say goodbye to their dying family members. It is the nurses who try to bridge that gap, calling families, holding mobile phones, and then holding hands with their dying patients. Nurses take their place at the bedside with both physical patient management and emotional support. If the nurses are lucky and gowned into proper protection, it is only their eyes that the patient can see, their voice the patient hears, and the warmth or a gloved hand that they feel. These can be enough. It is what nurses do.
The hold that the National Health Service has on the UK psyche is deep. It was conceived and brought into being in 1948 by Labour’s health minister, Aneurin Bevan. Subsequent governments have all taken turns nipping away at the NHS funding, mostly with cutting the salaries of nurses and doctors alike. This virus could be the a moment that the people say: Enough. Pay our staff.

Every European country with a socialized medical system sings its own praises. “Italy has the best Health Care System in the world.” says my Florentine friend Idanna. In less serious times I would banter with her that ours is better. But Italy, like all of the socialized systems has been sorely let down by their own government at this time. Italy went into lock down on February 23rd. Other European countries quickly followed with their own forms of isolation. It was not until March 23rd that the UK government asked this country to Shelter in Place. Italy quickly turned to music for community comfort. People came together across balconies and plazas to sing in praise and gratitude to their medical teams. Spain, Germany, France, England, China and America even, began their rituals of standing on doorsteps, singing, clapping and banging on whatever they can find to say thank you.

At 8:00 PM every Thursday, as night gives way to spring-time dusk, people around this country, on doorsteps, outside of hospitals, fire departments, and public services come out to clap, smile and wave at each other and for a moment not feel so alone.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad. written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Easter Weekend 2020

Easter Weekend in London brings news and time for reflection.

Some days swirl by in a non-specific haze, leading to a confusion of thought, and a seeming inability to get anything done, so that the by day’s end one wonders what did actually happen. Like older relatives and parents who cut out articles from the newspapers and mailed them to us, we now swap internet links and stories. “I thought you might be interested in …” and we often are.

Thomas arrived for my birthday. He had been hinted at, noted, ordered from our local book shop and was wrapped up to serve beside a pot of coffee for breakfast.

Thomas at Breakfast

Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light” brings Thomas Cromwell’s life to an end. For three days and nights I managed to resist him, continuing to read an evening chapter from “Jock of the Bushveld” an old favorite book of my mother’s.

But before even a week was over, I had picked up the hefty tome of 880 pages. I said (to myself) “I’ll just take a peek”, as if “I’ll just go for a drink with him. It’s nothing. I can get up and leave whenever I want.” But now Jock is laid aside, and Thomas has my heart and mind. I love him, more than a little bit, and am infinitely in awe of and grateful to Hilary Mantel. I am not alone. Others I know read him in this gifted time of solitude. We will go with him to his end and close the book with sadness.

When Susan Sontag published ‘The Volcano Lover’ in 1992, she went on her book tour. I was fascinated with the history and had lots of questions prepared for speaking with her at KPFA, Pacifica. But as the conversation relaxed and drew to a close, I asked about living alone in New York City. “Are you ever lonely?” “How could I be,” she responded. “I have two thousand years of history in my library.”

Here in London we both have small libraries crammed full of books that we cherish. We are both re-readers, I returning to history while he explores science. Though I’m a one-at-a-time gal there are at least seven books piled behind “The Mirror and the Light”.

My father would have been in his 70’s when I was first old enough to become conscious of his reading habit. And for him, too, this age was a time of re-reading books that he welcomed back into his life as long lost friends.

Saturday morning began in the new quiet, but by noon a helicopter began to circle overhead. There is no Prince traveling from one palace to another, and the air ambulance is hardly needed now that the London streets are almost empty of traffic. This is the police, boys with their toys, circling Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park looking for those, oh no, sunbathers and loiterers. Later, when we take our walk a police patrol car is cruising The Broad Walk. They are not walking to give a face to their presence, nor even on horseback when I might get lucky with a bag full of droppings for the compost pile.

The evening news program brings the government representatives out to the podiums with their daily bulletins. Mathew Hancock, Minister for Health, speaks his coverup nonsense “Maybe the NHS are hoarding gowns and masks which is why there is a shortage.” Priti Patel, the Home Secretary says, as one does when knowing there is a need for an apology but not ready to give ground, “I’m sorry the situation makes you feel that way.” As of this writing 8 national health doctors – all of them UK immigrants – have died. The number of nurses to have died is unknown. Today at over 11,000 deaths, England is set to overtake Italy in the number of Covid-19 deaths.

On Easter Sunday morning, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from St. Thomas’s Hospital and driven to Chequers, the country seat of the current Prime Minister. Whatever one feels about this Prime Minister we are grateful that one more life has been saved. And so is he, giving public thanks to the nurses who cared for him; particularly Ward Sister Jenny McGee, from New Zealand and Staff Nurse Luis Pitarma from Portugal – again – immigrants.

Easter Sunday is when some look for a miracle. Not necessarily the one of a life returned, but possibly of the recognition in this moment of gratitude by the Prime Minister, for the nurses, doctors and all staff working in the health service. Doctors may cure but it is the nurses and hospital staff that keep us alive.

Old into New – again

A strange part of all of this is trying to accept that my job is to be out of the way, not on the ‘front line’ – not helping. But what to do? what is next? The table napkins are next, the first one already torn and sewn to make a face mask. I take up a needle and mother’s cotton threads while listening to history unfold itself again.

I bow my head over the work as a gentlewoman would in the Tudor time of King Henry and his Lord Privy Seal, Sir Thomas Cromwell.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Minding the Gap

Learning to Heal recipient of the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing; Working Class Studies 2019

“Mind the Gap,” says the voice over the loud speaker and as I sit on the bench at the platform edge waiting for the train to unload the commuters coming into the city I think of ‘The Gap’. The book in my bag carries writing that looks back across the gap in time, from the days when we were nursing students to now. Each nurse author has written of where they have come from, and the events that bound them to their calling. Often it was touch, and the humble bed bath that was the sacrament that enfolded and claimed us as nurses.

Learning to Heal

Nurse Slater. The end of first year, receiving ‘Medicine in its Human Setting’

Sitting on that railway station bench, holding my bag and coffee (and croissant) I watched as the passengers got off the train, and walked quickly towards the exit, making their way down the escalator into their days in the city. It was a very definite ‘Miss Pym’s Day Out’  moment of watching: the dogged determination of the young man with his folding bike, the resignation of an older middle aged man, the nervous excitement of a young girl maybe hurrying to a new job. Then there was a very slim woman wearing a pencil pleated yellow skirt and pink blouse. She was determined not to let summer go – just yet.

The passengers are all off and the train is cleaned and ready for the few of us to board. It is a fast train from St. Pancras in London to Canterbury in Kent and I will take in a day at the ‘Working Class Studies Conference’ before the evening event at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

A knowing Taxi driver takes me to the campus and Keynes College, dropping me off exactly where I need to be. How many young students has he driven to their first day of college?

First there was Registration before going upstairs to the reception and classrooms. There were two book stalls, and on one, our book, propped up comfortably among communist manifestos and the rights of workers and all else.

Learning to Heal at the book stand

Looking through the program I circled three seminars to attend. What I heard time and again, is that when industry that has been built up is then taken away, closing factories but without providing alternative jobs or industry, it is the community that dies.

The evening light was soft and autumnal as I walked with a fellow participant from Nova Scotia University to the Darwin College Conference hall. The tables were prepared, and the buffet pans were being set up for the food that would follow. Terry Easton from the University of North Georgia introduced me to the other Tillie Olsen award winner, Ted Van Alst Jr. author of Sacred Smokes. We exchanged books and as I peeked inside his collection of stories I raised my glass of cider to his seeing. We sat together with his lovely wife Amie. My ‘End of Empire’ friends also came to the dinner offering moral support and a bed for the night.

Terry introduced us with these words:

“Judges named two winners in this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. The interlocking stories in Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.’s Sacred Smokes provide “an authentic representation of working-class urban life in the 1970s,” one judge wrote, adding that ‘[t]he collection’s tone-perfect survival humor helps create verisimilitude and keeps readers engaged . . . despite its often-dark themes.’ The collection is ‘one of the few fictions about urban working-class Natives,’ and it reveals ‘the deep truths of growing up working class in 1970s America.’ Another noted ‘Van Alst’s ability to put the reader inside the head of the protagonist’ to reveal ‘the humanity and texture of life among those in the poverty/working class who actually enjoy being there, despite the many drawbacks and dangers.’

“The award is shared by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis, editors of Learning to Heal: Reflections on Nursing School in Poetry and Prose. The collection illuminates worker-voices, and a judge noted, ‘the writing is emotionally strong, creatively composed, and an important addition to the literature of ‘what work is.’ Learning to Heal should be required reading in all nursing schools.’ Another praised ‘[t]he quality and ambition of the poetry.’ A third described Learning to Heal as ‘the best kind of writing working-class studies has to offer: actual workers telling their real-life stories with poetic, authentic, and instructional voices.’”

Ted went first and then I followed.

And this is what I said, for you all:

Thank you very much. It is a privilege to be honoured by ‘The Working Class Study’s Association’ and to share the 2019 ‘Tillie Olsen award for Creative Writing with Ted Van Alst Jr. and his book ‘Sacred Smokes’.

Thank you for including and acknowledging the work of nurses among all of you who are building appreciation of the role of work and exploring working class life and cultures.

Tillie Olsen is particularly close to my heart. Many years ago she penned me a personal thank you letter for my reading of Babette’s Feast on KPFA Pacifica radio. She was always listening to, and for, story and literature.
And Thank You for hosting this 15th Conference at Kent University in Canterbury. Canterbury was my father’s childhood home and where many, many years ago he was caned after being caught playing pop tunes on the Cathedral Organ.

Timing and dosage are everything in medicine and also in life and so I feel particularly fortunate to be able to represent the nurses whose work is included in “Learning to Heal, Reflections in Poetry and Prose,” and edited by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis and Published by Kent State University, (The other Kent,) with a forward by beloved Judy Schaefer, all who have been writing of nursing in poetry and prose for over 30 years “Learning to Heal,” is a jewel and an important piece of nursing and cultural History.

Oft times we choose nursing as a pathway from one social environment to another, usually empowerment and – or – of a social context. But in the course of our training and then our work we are blessed with another kind of change. A movement of the heart and – for in the acts of caring and healing – we are given the opportunity of growing and healing ourselves.

In the forward Judy Schaefer quotes Sister Frances’s phrase from ‘The Silent Treatment,’ “Silence, once learned, is the tabula rasa upon which the art of Nursing thrives; Silence is a language spoken by all. It is the music that goes before every note of love that a nurse’s hands can offer.”

Those of us who are lucky enough to write of our work in this reflective anthology are blessed to give you our gifts again. The 51 nurses I represent tonight have been able to share their stories, their history, and interestingly, they have shared their fears and failures more than their glowing successes. Nurses and writers know how much we learn and grow through our mistakes and humilities. We write to share those stories and give courage and comfort to the nurses to whom we pass the lamp. Though our kind of student life was hard none of us would give up a moment of it.
Particularly there is Minnie Brown Carter’s story of being a ‘coloured’ nurse training and graduation in 1947. It is of particular relevance, a reminder to us all that this fight, in America and through out the world, is not over yet. Minnie, on the other side of 90, is still a voice calling for recognition of fair treatment for all.

There is Judy Schaefer’s delicate voice … from Pennsylvania

I’ve singing lessons

“So let me out of class
Early please
It is time to go
No calculus
Anatomy

Throw a syringe like a dart
Remain alert to peristalsis after breakfast, lunch and dinner
Smile when you enter a room
See one, do one, teach one ….”

Cortney Davis’s soft New England tones purr like a crouching cat,

I learned how cells collide then melt and peel into spheres,
multisided like soccer balls or Rubik’s Cubes.
I stabbed oranges until my hands ran with Juice, then patients
until my hands ran with grace.
I learned the quick save: airway entered upside down and turned into breath.
I learned to kiss death.”

While Jeanne Bryner sings out of her Appalachian heritage in Ohio remembering …

“I have rainbow pills, water from a jug, syringes, needles
kept in shallow drawers. I am here to help the heart’s fist
squeeze and twist its red mop. Pain is a forest. My Hands?
Both ends of a two-man saw, my will, its blade.”

At some point in your lives you may be touched by a nurse’s hand. However much pain you are in, however weary we are, whatever passes between us – it will have been our privilege to care for you.

Thank you very much.

For Cortney and Jeanne, From WCSA and us all

1967

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.

Heartbeat bills in the USA as of May 2019

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.

Colleague or Patient

Lilacs in bloom in Regent's park. Photo by WSM

Lilacs in bloom in Regent’s park. Photo by WSM

On a beautiful spring morning my husband and I walked hand in hand through Regent’s Park.

Crossing the Marylebone Road we turned onto Harley Street to be met by our memories.

Could this be the same building that we entered over fifty years ago? Though many times repainted and re-carpeted and now with a lift beside the stairs and we felt a shivering echo of remembrance.

Harley Street W1

Student Nurse Slater 1962

In the mid 1960’s, contraception was not readily available to young unmarried nursing students. Those who became pregnant had to choose between pregnancy, possible marriage and leaving nursing school or terminating the pregnancy to continue training. At our hospital the choices were stark; a tryst with Reg the long-fingered maintenance super, several patient escorts to the Radiology lab or a visit to a discrete gynecologist on Harley Street. I remember a smooth, urbane, gentle young man who was used to caring for the young nurses who had fallen too quickly into the arms of his lustful colleagues. I only saw him one time and had no need to go further into his suite.

Today we took the lift to the third floor and entered a compact, neat office to wait at the reception desk – for the receptionist.

Another young man is pacing. He is shyly courteous and assures me someone will be with me shortly. He is, again, urbane, handsome and impeccably dressed but in this space he seems caged and nervous. The receptionist arrives and I fill in identical forms to those I filled out ten days ago at the doctor’s office. I return the forms to her and handed over a credit card, keeping my fingers crossed that our U.S. health insurance will kick in and help us out.

The young man is still pacing. Trying to put him at his ease I turn and ask: “And what do you do here young man?” Maybe this was not the most comforting of questions but it was the best I could come up with, for, I too, was nervous this morning.
“I’m a plastic surgeon. Are you a colleague or a patient?” He bats the question back at me in defense of himself. He is taken aback by my question, and I by his reply, so we laugh together as I gather my answer.
“I’m both. A nurse and, today, a patient.” I make a quick prayer that he is not on standby for my procedure. We laugh again as I gently ask, “Do you still get nervous?”
“Yes. Always, but I try not to show it.” He knows this is the answer I want to hear. Now our conversation is over and we part, I to sit down and wait, he to pace where he cannot be seen.

Brenda, the nurse who welcomes me, is Irish, old school and cheerful. I expect she greets all her patients as sweetly as she does me. She settles me into a waiting -recovery room and I gown-up with added pale blue socks before Dr Dobbs strides in.

He is a big man, tall and more than a touch over-weight. After a long weekend his nose is sunburnt and his cheeks are ruddy. This is not a man who follows his own doctoral advice. He introduces me to the histology pathologist who will be checking over my bits after they are dug out.

He applies a little light numbing to my lip before I am led into the OR suite. Two more nurses, one from Slovenia, the other from Romania are waiting. Between them they settle me onto the table. The room is air-conditioned cold which is great for them but I need a blanket.

The local anesthetic is given and soon it is: lights, camera and action as Dr. Dobbs begins. I am aware of blood being swabbed from my face and, from time to time, the smell of burning flesh as he cauterizes bleeding vessels. Brenda has a hand on my thigh, softly stroking me as if calming a stalled horse. When she moves around the table she constantly reaches and touches me. She is steady. My eyes are closed as I ponder the difference between numbness and pain.

Dr Dobbs is focused and I can feel when the work is easy and when it is hard. He has entered the sea surrounding the tip of an iceberg, the only visibility sign for two and a half months that something was wrong. This is a tricky, not so little, intrusion in my body and I can feel he is straining hard to get underneath it all. His stomach leans up agains my side and presses into me. His belly is as comforting as Brenda’s touch. I am reassured by his efforts and silence when working and his good manners to his nurses when he calls them.

Stage one is done. I return with my blanket and socks to the waiting – recovery room. Dr. Dobbs takes my bits to the lab while I’m surprised at how shaken I feel. Brenda sits with me a while, popping in and out to give me sips of water from a paper cup.

The pause is over and it is back to surgery for another round. Dr. Dobbs repeats his scraping, as if cleaning all the fruit-flesh from a melon skin, until he is satisfied he has enough and it is time for final closure. Luckily there is no sign of the young plastic surgeon and Dr. Dobbs is relaxing as we come down this home stretch together.
Eight sutures later, a dental pad dressing and I return to recovery.

“You’ll have a sort of hockey-stick scar. It will do very nicely in the skin crease in your face.” He kindly refrains from saying “wrinkle” but I am grateful to have aged in my own skin.

“How long do you want to keep her?” Brenda asks. I want to go home and let my husband get back to work so post-operative instructions and prescriptions are given before Dr. Dobbs sums up this morning, as if to himself, “You were good to be so relaxed. It makes a big difference.” And it felt so, a team effort between doctor, nurses and patient. It was collegial. I hugged each of the nurses as we said good-bye.

Taxis turn onto Harley Street

A black cab turned onto Harley Street as we came out of the building. We climbed in and the taxi driver took us quickly home.

I was laid out and down to begin a week of advanced Sofa-thenics while the next member of the team, my husband as colleague, bent down to caress and take care of me.

Advanced sofa- thenics

Nurse’s Day 2017

Today is May 6th, the beginning of Nurses Week in North America which ends on May 12th, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, and, since 1974, is celebrated as International Nurses Day.

1963 Prize giving @ Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford

Though I will not be buying any Hallmark cards for my nursing chums, I am thinking of my comrades and sisters who are my fellow nurses. Those friends we made, bonded in student years with the sharing of patients as we changed ward rotations; the remembrance of patients who were dear, beloved, or cantankerous, those we recall as much by attitude and character as by disease, those births celebrated and deaths honored. Then there were the working years before reentry to university bringing new adult companions, both student and teacher. Now, in this final quarter of life, I have found a sisterhood of nurse writers and poets. Some still work at the bedside of, or in the clinics with, patients – others teach, and all of us remain nurses within our communities and families. We write of the past, distant and immediate, bringing disease and care into the present.

Nurse Poets reading in Charleston 2016, Veneta Mason, Cortney Davis, Muriel Murch and Jeanne Bryner

 

We are lucky to have found each other and are grateful for the collectors among us: Cortney, Judy and now Jeanne who gather up our words, harvest them to reseed the bare virgin soil of tender young hearts. We write from different geographies of the Americans and the world. Jeannie Bryner from Ohio, Cortney Davis from Connecticut, Venenta Masson from Washington DC, Judy Schaefer from Pensilvania, Madeleine Mysko from Maryland, Patsy Harman from West Virginia.

Before I left California, I took from my bookcase the written work of my nursing friends. It is an impressive display of non-academic writing from professional women and men, and grows each year.

Within my bookcase

In 2018 Kent State University will publish another anthology of nurse writing, ‘This Blessed Field.’ Within this anthology are stories from young nurses, our stories, sharing our innocence with the new nurses of today helping to guide and comfort those following in our footsteps with the light we shine for them.

Each year on May 12th a church service is held in Westminster Abbey in London and at St. Margaret’s Church at East Willow in Hampshire. Wikipedia tells me that during the service, a symbolic lamp is taken from the Nurses’ Chapel in the Abbey and handed from one nurse to another, thence to the Dean, who places it on the High Altar to signifies the passing of knowledge from one nurse to another.
I will be in London that day and will go to the Abbey.

Glasgow Bound

Beatrice presenting her book at the Feria del Libro in Buenos Aires

Beatrice presenting her book at the Feria del Libro in Buenos Aires

Taking a night train tonight from London to Glasgow. A new adventure for The Bell Lap and I as we go to the Royal College of Nursing Congress and Exhibition 2016Wisepress is featuring The Bell Lap at 11.20 am through noon on Tuesday June 21 (stand number A9). I have no idea what to expect – a big convention hall and masses and masses of people wandering about. Hopefully some folks will have tired feet and want to sit down and listen to a story or two. Thinking of Beatrice when she presented her book on the A-line subway in Buenos Aires in 2014.

From Wards to Words and Back Again

It was 1995 when Between the Heartbeats Poetry and Prose for Nurses was first published by the University of Iowa State Press. Conceived and edited by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer, this was the first Anthology of Creative Writing by Nurses, gathered from around the world.

Heartbeats at Chapters Bookstore DC

Between the Heartbeats writers at Chapters Book Store, Washington DC, 1995

 For many nurses it was the first time our medical writing had been accepted for publication. That summer as many of us who could, maybe twenty out of fifty contributors, came to Chapters Book Store in Washington DC for our first ever reading. This coincided – not unintentionally – with the annual general convention of the American Nurses Association. The evening was exciting, scary and thrilling. Scary because we were reading our own work and thrilling because we were hearing the words and work of other nurses. All of us facing the same direction, our voices so different and yet so deeply in tune with each another. There was an audience, listening, applauding and asking questions. One man spoke up, “Wow, this is amazing. Can’t wait for when you present this to the ANA”. We were all silent before Cortney, in her calmest most diplomatic way, (her speciality) replied, “Actually we won’t be at the convention. They don’t want us and won’t let us present the book there.” Among the audience were nurses who would be at the convention. We were all stunned, silenced and sobered that those nurses for whom we wrote did not deem our words necessary or supportive of their work.

As nurse writers we came together for that weekend forming a tight union of sorts, loosely knit, tendrils of thought, vision, each of us seeing and transforming through words, our patients in the wards, clinics and communities we serve. Since those early years we have continued to write, sending each other our books, reviewing and commenting for each other, hosting nurses writers on the radio and spoke of our work to audiences wherever we could.

Coming together was always a chancy affair but we get our moments. Two years ago The Medical University of North Carolina held its first “Narrative Bridge Conference”. Five of us, Jeanne Bryner, Cortney Davis, Veneta Masson, Judy Schaefer and myself, made it there for the long weekend;. We were billed as “The Nurse Poets” and that is what we have become. Through the years more books of poetry, prose, creative non-fiction and novels have been written and published and within the ‘about the author’ description the word “Nurse” always leads. This is who we are, this is where we speak from, whenever and wherever we can.

It was Lisa Kerr from the MUSC school of nursing who again called us together this year. Lisa wrote asking if we could come, not only to speak to the faculty and students of the nursing school but that there could be an opportunity to perform as The Nurse Poets in the annual Piccolo Spoleto Arts Festival at the Dock Street Theatre. New books had been published, among them, Jeanne Bryner’s poetry Smoke, Cortney Davis’ When the Nurse Becomes a Patient, which won an American Journal of Nursing Book Award for 2015 and my 2016 The Bell Lap Stories for Compassionate Nursing Care were all hot off the press and we were eager to share our work. I was ending a roll-out with The Bell Lap, coming down from New York and a launch at the National Arts Club with the great cartoonist, and tonight – host – Roz Chast whose book about the final years of her parent’s lives Can’t we Talk about Something More Pleasant, remains a best seller.

A little help with the night before prep.

A little help with the night before prep.

It was – is – fun to be on the other side of the microphone. This was a first for Roz who is more used to being questioned about her work, and almost a first for me, being more used to asking those questions. With her questions and comments, memories surprised me and in the quickness of the moment words did not always take the long route – through my brain – as they rushed from my heart to my mouth. Maybe it was not the smartest thing to recall ‘my first leg,’ after Roz’s question about my failed operating room experiences. And so we learn. Beloved friends were there and I was more than grateful to see nurses in the audience, plus a doctor or two. Paul Gross and Dianne Guernsey who co-edit Pulse Magazine “Voices from the Heart of Medicine” came in on the train, Cousin Tom rode the bus from Cap Cod and nurse colleague Gerry Colburn traveled in from New Hampshire.

Tony and Peter and MAM

A Hug from Tony and Peter After it is all over.

It was a great evening and gave me the needed boost and courage to fly down to Charleston and join the band – not yet a rock band – The Nurse Poets.

Four of us had made it and it was grand to be together. Jeanne had driven for two days from Ohio. Cortney flew from Connecticut, Veneta from Washington DC and I from London, via New York. At breakfast we celebrated with coffee and grits. We quickly shared our stories, families, the agonies of book promotions and knowing as all women of a certain age do, that we will continue to balance these lives until illness, infirmity or death claim us.

At noon, under Lisa’s guidance, we spoke at MUSC nursing school for more faculty than students but how eager they all were, how they knew the importance of story, the lives led before and beyond the illness of the patient. Then an afternoon break before being driven past the Emanuel Church where flowers are still laid out daily in remembrance of last years tragedy to an early supper of fine southern food. (Where oh where do I get the real recipe for Green Fried Tomatoes?)

Then we walked to the Dock Street Theater where the audience was already gathering for our evening performance. The theatre is nestled in a small courtyard, intimate and perfect for poetry readings. The seats filled quickly and chairs were added along-side the cloisters until there was standing room only. We sat, warm but not hot, under the evening sky. Our time was tight, and so were we. Introductions by Barbara, the organizer of the festival. then Lisa, organizer of us and then, following each other in alphabetical order, we were on. Each of us brought our full-to-overflowing hearts to the mics and poured out our words. Jeanne watching family, Cortney and Veneta their clinics, and I from the wards and communities before returning to nursing school with an excerpt from The Bell Lap.

Veneta Masson, Cortney Davis, Muriel Murch, Jeanne Bryner

Veneta Masson, Cortney Davis, Muriel Murch, Jeanne Bryner

The audience rose to applaud these words that came from our hearts and our memories. Why did they love us so? We were good 🙂 yes but was it just the words, or was it the knowledge that with these words they know we have seen them, as people before patients. We have marked and held them in our hearts and returned them to themselves, thus received and healed, if not cured. Giving this audience an understanding that as these words have come from the wards to them they may also return to the new young nurses of today.

Jeanne, Miriam from L.A., Venetta and Muriel

Jeanne, Miriam (The next generation), Veneta and Muriel enjoy the reception for The Nurse Poets.