Friday, August 29, 2008

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was the 30th president of the United States. Ask me how I know.

I had a great time in the hospital last week. On Thursday I shadowed a nurse in the Emergency Department. A man came in having a heart attack, but they caught it early and he was doing fine when I left. Another man, a very old man, needed a nasogastric (NG)tube, and I got to do it! It was my first one, and it was not easy. An NG tube goes in through the nose, down the esophagus, and into the stomach. As you can imagine, it's extremely invasive.

The nurse I was shadowing told me that I was in luck; the man who needed it was very calm and cooperative. He sure was, until I stuck that tube in his nose. He promptly transformed into Octopus Man, writhing and moaning as the nurse held him and I worked the 15 inches of plastic into his nostril. It was intense, and hard to think of myself as "being of service." Later I was reminded of the first time I held a child in the ED at Children's Hospital, a three-month old girl who needed a urinary catheter. It was my second night on the job, and there I was holding her legs open while she looked me right in the eyes and screamed her lungs out. As with the old man and the NG tube, I told myself it was in her best interest. I don't like this part of nursing.

Tuesday and Wednesday, I was back in the telemetry unit, this time with two patients instead of the usual one. Tuesday was tough; I barely got everything done and was really stressed out by the end of the day. Wednesday was great; I was completely in the groove and had really connected with my two patients. I like this part of nursing.

Both of my patients were men. GH is 94 years old and CT is 90. GH just had his third heart attack. While giving him his physical assessment, he almost passed out while squeezing my fingers.
Imagine for a moment that your heart is so weak that giving a good handshake tires you out. Consider what it takes to get out of bed in the morning, do your business in the bathroom, walk down the stairs, make breakfast. Whew! Time for a nap. And your day is just getting started.

I was able to spend time chatting with both men quite a bit. There's a unique elder presence to which I'm becoming more and more attuned. It's hard to describe. In certain mythologies it is called the "king" energy, or in Jungian psychology,
the king archetype. For women it is the queen archetype. When I spend time with elder patients in the hospital, I experience it as the embodiment of a lifetime of experience and wisdom. And it is only with time that I am able to truly access its power and beauty.

On Wednesday I was on my way to the supply room. Walking toward me, one arm holding his cane, the other grasping the hand of another nursing student, was a man I had spent some time with the previous week. He is 88 years old, and looks like a skinny Don King. The resemblance ended there, as this man was one of the most gentle and elegant souls I had ever met. I say hello to him and approach. He extends his hand and gives me a firm shake. He does not let go as he looks in my eyes. I ask him how he's doing, and he says, "The Lord takes good care of this old man." I tell him I hope I look that good in five years. He laughs. The he says,

"I remember when Calvin Coolidge..."

"Excuse me," a nurse interrupts. "Can you give me a hand?"

I hastily said goodbye to my friend, and walked away from someone who actually had a story to tell about Calvin Coolidge. So how do I know about Calvin Coolidge? I looked it up! I never got the chance to go back and hear about our 35th president from someone who remembered him.

A few years ago I attended a seminar by Michael Meade, an anthropologist who does amazing work with teenagers. He was talking of stories, of how one of the distinguishing features of humans is that we tell stories. Or at least we used to. And the elders were the keepers of the stories, and it was their duty and honor to pass along their stories to the next generation. But now, Meade said, we don't listen to our elders. We don't ask them to tell us their stories. So their stories are being forgotten. And if there are no stories for our elders to tell, well, maybe there's nothing to remember at all. Maybe we're not just losing those stories; we're also losing our elders. And with it, a piece of ourselves.

Then someone raised their hand and asked Meade if this forgetting might have something to do with Alzheimers Disease. The room fell silent. Someone said, "Wow."

I'm going to be seeking out these stories as I continue down the path of nursing. And listening, really listening. What a great way to connect to another person.

And so much better than texting.


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