The Other Side of Illness
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1 The Other Side of Illness I heard a woman say, your operation is over. I had been a long time waking. As I swam back toward the sounds of the recovery room, I was aware of hands touching my arms and adjusting what seemed to be an endless number of new appendages—tubes and wires that snaked from my body like bare branches on a winter tree. Ah, I thought. This one must be a nurse, the owner of the voice that’s now saying, good-bye, good luck. Then there was a lurch and a floating sensation as my gurney was wheeled away. When all motion stopped, I vaguely realized I was in my room. A centipede with a hundred hands lifted me from the stretcher to the cold bed. More hands rolled me from side to side, then a woman who smelled like soap enfolded me in a warm blanket, and I disappeared. I hadn’t been a patient for many years. In fact, just days ago I had been the strong nurse on the other side of illness. When I found myself lying in the emergency room, subjected to all those odious procedures to which I once glibly sent my patients, I was reminded of how thin the line is between health and sickness. How easy it is to feel good. How quickly we can give that up and fall helplessly into disability’s deep crevice. For the next several days, I wondered if I would live or die, at the same time chiding myself for such dramatics. I struggled to make sense of my symptoms, reassuring myself that the weird nightmares were due to the central nervous system effects of the antiemetics, that the nasogastric tube was indescribably uncomfortable because it was irritating my nasopharynx, and that the unremitting nausea was a hangover from the anesthesia. Whenever I floated to consciousness, I took inventory of my body, as patients tell me they’ve done: Yes, my heart is beating. Yes, I feel pain, so I must be alive. I could rationalize my symptoms, but that clinical mastery did nothing to calm my fears. All the while, nurses came and went from my bedside, administering medications, changing IV bags, soothing me, and holding my hand when there Davis text.indb 1 11/12/08 10:00:25 AM 2  the heart’s truth was nothing else they could do. For the first time, I realized the importance—the impact—of this kind of consistent, nonjudgmental caring. While doctors visited once daily and gave their brief pronouncements, nurses were ever present, comforting me and standing vigil over the workings of my body—the rise and fall of oxygen, measured by the clip on my index finger; the fluctuation of blood pressure and the ooze of fluid from my incision; the rewrapping of bulky antiembolic pads that whooshed and squeezed my legs all day and night. Those reassuring rhythms contrasted with the growing necessity I felt to hold on to what was normal. If one could recall what it was like to be a whole person, I reasoned, one could set a course to recapture that feeling. I also wondered if I was in this situation because I needed to discover what it was real­ ly like to be a patient. Perhaps I had grown too complacent after twenty-seven years in nursing and had failed to be as alert as I should have been. I decided that someone had found me out and sent me here for repair. So I paid attention to what I saw and thought about in the dark. Sometimes I’d wake and see a nurse, like a dream vision or a cool drink offered in the midst of a suffocating desert, standing over me to adjust the equipment that kept my body in equilibrium. Then I understood what my presence as a caregiver must have meant to the patients I’ve tended. I also gained a new appreciation of how suffering alters time. The clock on the wallglowedinthedimlight.WheneverIlooked,onlyminuteshadpassed,asiffear graspedtheslenderhandsandheldthemback,magnifyingeverybodilysensation and dragging out every pain as if it were taffy, sickly sweet and stretched to the breaking point. As hours inched by, I realized how mortal and common I was— just one patient on a floor filled to capacity. Nevertheless, I was me. I reminded myself that every patient has a unique tale and their own, individual suffering. Little by little I recovered, and as I did the nurses...


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