Stunning Memories

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series Issue II: Fall 2009

by Eileen D. Kelly

As usual, Rose ran to catch the four-forty-five bus after work. Today was different though; it was her last day at St. Raphael’s hospital. She was retiring, finally. An ambulance howled as it passed her bus, the scream winding down and down, then stopping at the emergency room door.

I’m glad I’m going the other way, she thought, then found herself remembering her first day on the ward, long ago, back in nursing school. She had been there only to observe, when a code was called for a patient whose heart had suddenly stopped beating. A young doctor cut open the man’s chest, lifting his ribs up like the top of a huge clamshell. Just like that, right there in the ten-bedded ward. With no curtains to draw and shield his innermost, intimate parts, the man’s heart and lungs, intact but still, were there for all to see. Rose almost fainted, but curiosity kept her standing, glued to the front row. It was unbelievable. Someone started massaging the man’s heart, squeezing it gently in a steady rhythm. Someone who looked like a child dressed up in grown-up clothes began pumping oxygen from a tank into the unconscious fellow’s nose and mouth; Rose could see the lungs inflate. She knew that was good, but her stomach heaved anyway with the urge to vomit; with eyes watering, she swallowed as hard as she could and resisted, wanting to see it all. It was shocking and enthralling, all at the same time.

After a year or so of training, the shocks lessened, though there were always those new experiences that would throw her. A patient’s death always did that to her.

When Rose went to work in Psychiatry she thought there would be no more shocks. She was wrong. It was more shocking – not with blood and guts – but the heartbreaking craziness. The man who begged for a “castration tracheotomy” really jolted her. He tried to explain that because of something he had done, which he didn’t reveal, he was sure he would be castrated. His masculine voice would go, leaving him with high-pitched speech. Everyone would then know what he did. If he could become dumb through a tracheotomy, that would be better.

Rose was stunned and moved; she felt sorry for the man. Every day was like that, with startling, irrational, painful revelations. She never got used to it and felt she shouldn’t, or she’d lose her empathy. If she did, it would be time to leave. Rose was glad to be leaving because she got old, not hardened.

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