May 6, says the calendar, is National Nurses’ Day in the United States. I have seen Facebook and Twitter observances today, as well as a statement by the President – one which, I observe with some pain, he made with nurses present, standing too close to one another, and without masks.
Ironically, as the nation and the world face a rapidly spreading and deadly pandemic, thousands of nurses and other health care workers have been laid off as “elective” medical procedures have been deferred. Others have been fired for refusing to enter risky situations without proper protective equipment. Some have been screamed at by “open now” demonstrators for simply speaking the truth about a widespread and serious illness.
In these days that nurses are hailed as heroes one moment and treated so shabbily the next, I want to thank them for being the heart and soul of compassionate health care.
Late in 2017, I noticed a strange growth on my nose. I didn’t think much of it at first, as it acted first like one thing and then like another thing that I expected to heal up and go away. When it continued to grow instead, I reluctantly took myself to have it examined.
I have two major flaws as a patient. The first is that I will delay a medical consult. I don’t care much for the standard discomforts and indignities of a medical exam. Yes, I know they’re needed. Yes, they’re still uncomfortable and undignified. I value my dignity. If I’m present in a physician’s office, it’s either because it’s a regular check-up and I’m giving up my dignity for the responsibility of self-care, or I’m really afraid. Really afraid.
The second is that while I can be trusted to follow through on things like wound care, I’m terrible when it comes to lab work. See the paragraph above.
That December in the examining room of dermatologist Dr. Monica Scheel, I was terrified. I strove to present a calm demeanor. I told my body that it was not to flinch. I kept my voice light. If I succeeded, the only reason I didn’t get an Oscar for that performance was the absence of a film crew.
Dr. Scheel went a long way to try to reassure me, to turn my act into some semblance of reality. She is a skilled physician with great people skills. There came the time, however, when her attention had to be focused on some parts of my skin rather than on me. She numbed the area thoroughly. Then she removed the sample to figure out what it was.
As she did, the nurse on the other side gently moved her gloved fingers back and forth along my forearm. She didn’t say anything. She just let me know, in the only way that could reach me in that moment, that there was comfort for my fears.
I tear up just a little remembering it.
In my experience, it is nurses who have been given the role of rooting medicine in humanity. This is no slight to physicians or technicians, who I have also known to bring that human touch. For them, however, there will often come a time when they have to set that part of themselves aside, to focus on a portion of the person, not the whole.
Nurses – RNs, LPNs, CNAs – they have been given the awesome responsibility to be the comforting presence, the one who accompanies us as we endure treatment and the one at our side as we heal.
Thank you, nurses. There are no words to fully appreciate what you do.