Glen Arm, Maryland, United States
|Le Typhique. A contagiously ill man asks for the bed-pan; the nurse tells him that it will cost ten sous for the risk. Colour photomechanical reproduction of a lithograph by N. Dorville, c. 1901. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain|
In the summer before my senior year in high school, I spent my vacation as a candy striper. In the sixties, this was an opportunity for young girls interested in nursing to serve as hospital volunteers and gain some insight into their career of choice. Being young and naïve—and excited to wear my striped uniform and be part of the hospital team—I enthusiastically accepted my assignment to the “chronic ward” of the local city-run hospital.
When I walked off the elevator to the Three West wing where I was assigned, I did not see the familiar Hollywood image of gratefully recuperating patients surrounded by handsome medical staff flipping through charts and adjusting mysterious machines. Instead, I was greeted by an unexpected collection of human specimens: some drooling as they sat slumped in wheelchairs, some wandering the hallway with blank looks on their faces, some reaching to touch me with toothless smiles. As I walked down the long hall, I could see a few patients in their beds, surveying me as I passed.
Although this was not the hospital experience I had envisioned, I told myself that a nurse has to care for all kinds of people, swallowed my disappointment, and presented myself for duty to the head nurse. In a dry, matter-of-fact way, this seasoned caregiver gave me a five-minute orientation to the ward, using terms whose full implications I did not appreciate at the time. Hopeless cases. Total care. Out of it.
“Don’t worry . . . it’s doubtful that you could do anything to harm this bunch,” were her final words of encouragement as she walked toward the employee break room, already having freed a cigarette from the pack in her uniform pocket.
A sympathetic nursing assistant, seeing my baffled state, approached me with a warm smile and a large cart of water pitchers.
“You’ll get used to it,” she offered. “Once you get to know them, you’ll see that they are just people who have been dealt a bad hand in life. Nothin’ to be scared of. Some of ‘em even grow on you a little. Take these pitchers and put a fresh one in each of the rooms. That’ll be a good way to get a feel for things.”
And so, with a nod of thanks, I began my first task.
As I walked to the many bedside tables to exchange the metal pitchers, I noticed catheters draining urine into bags, missing limbs on frail bodies, tubes inserted into noses, and other sights that were quite foreign to my teenage world. Sometimes a patient would smile at me; sometimes my presence was ignored, as though I was another fixture in the room.
It was nearing the end of my shift, so I was glad to unload the last of the water pitchers. After distributing thirty-two pitchers, I felt like a pro and was proud of my newly-acquired ability to carry three in each hand at the same time. My cockiness melted when I entered my final room and saw the patient in the bed by the window.
At first glance, this man looked like any other patient. In fact, he actually made a better impression than the other patients with his cleanly shaven face, neatly combed hair, and wide smile. Two nursing assistants were in the process of turning him. As the blanket dropped away, I could see his tortured-looking joints and a bedsore on his back that was the size of my fist. His limbs flung without control as he was turned from side to side. Although he was talking normally with his caregivers, it appeared as though he could not move any part of his body on his own.
I left the room, wondering about the man I had just seen. Fortunately, I ran into the nursing assistant who assigned my first task.
“Well, kiddo, how’d it go?” she asked, taking the cart from me.
“Not bad,” I replied, “but what is the story with that man in 325? He talked normally but it seemed like he couldn’t move his body.”
“You mean Old Charlie,” she replied with a chuckle. “Of course he can’t move his body, he’s a quad.”
I had no clue what she was talking about.
“What do you mean quad?” I asked.
“He’s paralyzed from the neck down. They say he’s been like that since he was a boy. Somethin’ ‘bout him causing it by diving in shallow water. Can’t move a muscle of his body. Needs everything done for him, poor soul.”
I remember my first thoughts after hearing this as though it was yesterday: Why would anyone want to live like this? Mr. Charlie absorbed my thoughts that evening.
As the days progressed, I became more comfortable with the assorted variety of patients and grew to understand their needs. However, my greater interest was in Mr. Charlie. Be it delivering linens, serving food trays, or opening windows, at every opportunity I would find a chance to enter his room. And every time I did, I was greeted by a large smile and cheerful greeting.
One of the things that I began to notice was that frequently there was a nursing assistant or nurse sitting alongside Mr. Charlie’s bed, not performing any task, but just talking. Just talking like a friend would, with this man who could not move anything from the neck down. Oh, how this baffled my teenage mind.
Before long, I too was among the court of Mr. Charlie. I discovered a gentle man with a keen sense of humor and a sincere interest in others. Throughout the day, employees would hang over his bedrail or pull up a chair next to his bed as they took their coffee or lunch breaks and shared their joys and troubles . . . more times than not, their troubles. And Mr. Charlie would offer undivided attention and wise words that fed them. He asked about their mothers and children and boyfriends by name, with specific inquiry as to how a particular issue was going. Frequently, employees found excuses to visit room 325 to give their mentor an update of current events in their lives. They did not see a useless body that could not even raise a cup to his own mouth. Instead, they saw a kind, caring, giving human being who they truly enjoyed and appreciated. Mr. Charlie was an active part of their lives despite never leaving the confines of his hospital bed.
That summer I learned many things about hospital routines and caring for sick people that proved invaluable in preparing me for the realities of nursing. Yet I learned something even more important: what it meant to unconditionally love. I saw a paralyzed man who could have easily been justified for being bitter and resentful of able-bodied persons; instead, he opened his heart to minister to those individuals. His unselfish ability to transcend his own limitations and suffering to be sufficiently interested and caring to serve others demonstrated a very special love. In addition, those individuals who shared their stories with Mr. Charlie, fed him the homemade goodies that they baked, granted him tremendous respect for the wisdom he offered, and were able to see beyond the limp body to the unique human being within, also demonstrated a very special love.
Many years have passed since my summer encounter with Mr. Charlie. I wish I could say that the journey of love has been a smooth one in my life. It has not. I have made my share of relationship mistakes, influenced by superficial actions, raging hormones, and attractive appearances that stirred emotions that I mistook for love.
On the other hand, deep within, I do believe I understand the essence of love. Seeing beyond the exterior, connecting heart to heart, making a decision to learn about the unique person within, being willing to transcend one’s own troubles to be available and serve another; the meaning of love learned at the bedside of one paralyzed man has left an imprint and blessed me with relationships and experiences that I otherwise may have missed. Thank you, Mr. Charlie.
CHARLOTTE ELIOPOULOS, RN, MPH, ND, PhD, has served in a variety of positions ranging from nursing assistant to director of nursing and pioneered such roles as clinical specialist in gerontological nursing at Johns Hopkins Hospital, gerontological nursing specialist for the Maryland Department of Health, and Executive Director of the American Association for Long Term Care Nursing. She has been involved in many issues pertaining to aging on a national level. Currently, through writing and workshops, she is focused on guiding boomers to achieve purpose, pleasure, and their fullest potential by being informed and in charge of their aging process.