Earthly angels: A hymn to the caregivers

Praise be to saintly, unheralded, devoted nurses everywhere

Illustration by Nathan Arizona

About the essayist:
Jaime O’Neill is a Magalia resident and retired Butte College faculty member.

Once, far back in the century before this one, I read a novel with a scene depicting the main character rising from bed to find himself urinating blood, the red of it shocking against the white of the toilet bowl. I had never imagined blood issuing from that source. A few weeks later, I woke up with intense pressure on my bladder, went to the bathroom and out came blood. In the novel I’d read, the character had died of cancer. I was 25; I assumed I was doomed.

A urologist didn’t think so. He ordered a test that involved running a tiny camera up my urethra and having a look at what might be wrong. This procedure was usually done with a local anesthetic, but when the doctor saw the fear on my face he decided to put me out for what was, I later learned, a very simple procedure.

I went under the anesthetic convinced I would not survive, that the problem they would find would be so advanced and so incurable that they would just not bother to bring me back.

I returned to befogged consciousness with a woman bending over me, a light above her head creating a halo. She took my hand, said something reassuring in a low voice. For a fleeting moment I thought she was an angel.

I wasn’t far off. She was a nurse.

It’s something of a miracle that I’ve arrived at my advanced age without ever having spent a night in a hospital as a patient. I have, however, spent a few nights in the hospital this year, sitting at my wife’s bedside in the weeks following her 13-hour cancer operation. I’ve been around a lot of nurses since she was diagnosed, reminding me that caregivers are surely among the best people human beings produce. Not every one of them, of course, but a good nurse is an earthly saint, infinitely more noble than lots of other categories of Homo sapiens that spring to mind.

Remember those tests they gave us when we were in school, the ones that asked questions framed by a series of choices, such as: “Which would you you rather do? a) read a book to a sick friend, b) paint a fence, c) set up a lemonade stand?” I always chose an option like reading a book to a sick friend, a choice that indicated a career path toward fields like nursing.

But I would almost surely have gotten tired of reading to that sick friend in a few days, would have begun to grow impatient with his or her need, or what would have begun to seem like a stubborn refusal to get well enough to read his or her own damn book.

I became a teacher, not a nurse. Teaching often required all the patience I could muster, though I thought of myself as a patient man. But I am not now nor was I ever as patient as the best nurses are required to be. As I saw them tend to my wife, and to the young woman in the next bed who was, I learned, dying of a cancer that had become inoperable, I marveled at the saintliness of the nurses, about half of them men, and some young enough to be my grandchildren.

Their skills were admirable, but it was their human qualities that impressed me most as I watched them through the night, hustling from room to room to keep up with a variety of medication schedules, or to respond to patients signaling a range of needs or requests, seeking relief from pain or distress that made it no longer possible for those helplessly bed-ridden people to remain passive and quiet. There were also patients who were merely fussy, lonely, bored or thirsty.

Nor were all of those patients grateful or gracious. Many of those being treated in our nation’s hospitals are off the streets, homeless people with mental as well as physical disorders. Deep in the night, I sometimes heard their pain, their rage or their pitiable disorientation, cries that shattered the respite from pain other patients had found in fitful slumber. A human cry in the night will wake you, no matter how drugged or exhausted you might be.

Beyond all of that, there is the physical immediacy of giving care to people who are sick, the blood and bodily fluids, the pus, the coughs and sneezes that generally seem repellent or threatening to most people. Nurses are exposed to possible contagions during every shift they work, and they often leave their own sick kids or spouses at home to take care of other people’s kids and spouses.

This is not a job anyone would do solely for a paycheck. The work is hard, but the caring is harder. Choosing nursing with salary as a first priority would not pan out or pay off even in places where the pay was good, which is not a given. Anyone motivated to go into nursing solely by pecuniary interests could never hope to be good at it, anyway.

Nursing requires a range of aptitudes and elements of personal character that extend far beyond what training can implant. The ability to provide care, even to those we love, takes us to the far frontiers of love, devotion, patience, kindness and empathy. I’ve been a nurse to my own beloved wife for months, and if this job was about the money, I’d have quit by now because it’s too demanding to make any amount of money quite enough.

So this essay is for the earthly angels who come off their shifts exhausted, having seen more human suffering in a month than most people see in a lifetime, who bear witness to the sorrows and the sufferings to which all flesh is heir but resist becoming inured to it, resist what must surely be an ongoing temptation to harden their hearts or shield their souls. Bless those hearts and souls.