Sunday, June 30, 2013

A funny thing happened on the way to the ultra

They say sleep helps you heal. Funny, because I got none of it during my week in the ICU; no one ever does. Things beep and click and buzz. Lights flash. Hospital beds are second only to the Iron Maiden in terms of comfort. And of course, you are never, ever alone. Someone’s always coming in to do something to your body ranging from annoying to unpleasant to let-us-not-speak-of-this-again. Blood pressure checks, pulse checks, temperature checks, pain meds, blood draws—oh lordy, the blood draws. I got needle tracks Coltrane would envy.

In order to make sure my left leg wasn’t clotting to the point of no return, a nurse would come in every hour, remove my special yellow anti-skid socks (pointless given that I was not allowed to stand up on them and test their skid-blocking abilities), smear a gob of cold blue jelly on my foot and check my pulse with a shoe-box-size machine that totally looked like some cheap fake prop from a 1950s sci-fi flick. The nurse would stick the end of a metal probe into the foot jelly, turn a big dial, and listen as the doohickey hissed and whined until eventually it found the familiar lub-dub of a pulse. Then the blue goo would be wiped off and the yellow sock replaced, inevitably catching on one of my ragged toenails and threatening to pull it off. The nurse would squeal in dismay and apologize profusely; I would shrug. Distance runners get used to shaking the detached toenails out of their socks.
In the hospital bed, not sleeping, not able to move, not wanting to succumb to self-pity yet feeling pretty damned pitiful, I listened to the night shift nurse quietly enter the room to take my pulse. The procedure was the same every time, but the night shift nurse seemed particularly adept at doing what needed to be done efficiently and unobtrusively. And each time, after she took my pulse and wiped the jelly off with a paper towel, she would run her hand over the side of my foot to make sure she got all the goo off—gently, like a whisper, ever trying not to disturb me.

In that hospital bed, sour with sweat, blood matted in my hair, bruised, punctured, feeling in every way unlovely and foul, I saw someone who cared enough to make sure that least my foot would not be coated with disgusting goo, that at least in some little way I could feel clean again.

Touching someone’s foot can be quite intimate. In this case the touch was not erotic or arousing, but it still seemed moving, somehow. I recalled a line from early in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, where Claudia describes the seemingly harsh way she was treated when she was sick as a child but then, with an adult’s understanding, realizes that the anger she thought was directed at her might actually have been anger over her suffering. She remembers something else, too: “someone with hands who does not want me to die.”
Nurses, like teachers, balance a sense of caring with a sense of professional duty. They are paid to show kindness, or what is often perceived as personal kindness rather than skills borne of training and experience. But even job-related kindness is a precious commodity; not everyone takes that one extra step, after all. In fact, kindness in any form can seem rare to the point of extinction. There is such endless emphasis on love in popular culture that kindness is often overlooked in terms of what’s most valuable in life. The reasons are obvious: kindness isn’t dramatic or sexy; it could even be seen as wimpy, given by the soft to the weak. It’s the stuff of maudlin aphorisms, the likes of which make people go “aw” and hit the “share” button right before they move on to guffawing over some celebrity fashion faux pas.

Just wait, though. Some dark moment of your life, someone will show you kindness in some small way and you’ll understand just how much it matters. This could have been a very bad week. It wasn’t. So many people who didn’t have to do what they did for me did it anyway. When I rose to stand yesterday for the first time in five days, I felt shaky, I wobbled, but I stepped forward. I knew there were hands all around me, the hands of people who didn’t want me to fall.



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