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4 Washing Mrs. Cardiff’s Feet On a sunny, late February day in 1970, I knelt for the first time ever to wash a patient’s feet. She was a fifty-five-year-old woman in heart failure who would die less than a week later. I was in my first year of nursing school. I washed Mrs. Cardiff’s feet at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, a community institution commandeered by Sister Mary Margaret, a tiny, middle-aged nun in voluminous black who moved silently through the wards, always appearing just in time to correct a near error in patient care or to catch a sloppily tightened draw sheet. At St. Joe’s—what we students and many of the nurses called the hospital—most patients lingered in wards, four or five beds along one wall, an equal number against the other. Green fabric curtains on squeaky metal rings surrounded the beds, allowing only sounds and smells and the silent vibrations of sorrow to penetrate their borders. When all the curtains were opened, as they were at night and for meals, the two rows of patients faced each other like chess pieces. Upright and fragile in their johnny gowns or lying on their scratchy bleached sheets, every patient knew what was wrong with, and what was happening to, every other patient. Walking through Sister Mary Margaret’s halls, I tried to assume the demeanor befitting my new student nurse’s uniform: a white-collared striped blue dress, cinched at the waist with a tuck that held bandage scissors and a small clamp, called a mosquito, that was handy for twisting off IV bottle caps and performing other mysterious, as yet unlearned, tricks of the nursing trade. We students went bareheaded until our second year when, after an elaborate ceremony, we each sported a pure white, high-winged cap with one pale blue velvet ribbon. The second ribbon, dark blue, would come only with graduation. I didn’t yet know that along with graduation would come an assortment of grave responsibilities. I would come to understand this because in my first year of nursing school I was— first with reluctance, then in gratitude—called to wash Mrs. Cardiff’s feet. Davis text.indb 4 11/12/08 10:00:26 AM washing mrs. cardiff’s feet 5 She’d been placed not in the women’s ward but in one of the few semiprivate rooms. The bed by the door was vacant, its occupant off somewhere for a test or an operation, and so that first day it was just Mrs. Cardiff and me in the small, antiseptic-smelling room. Sunlight, the cold glow of midwinter, filtered in through the one window overlooking the parking lot. Transformed by its passage through glass and over the forced hot air hissing out of the radiator, the sunlight warmed the bed on which Mrs. Cardiff reclined, her hair dyed blond and done up in the stiff, poufy style of the day. She wore her own nightgowns, refusing the thin, limp hospital gowns, and, with a less-than-steady hand, she applied mascara and a touch of coral lipstick each morning. She was unwilling to give up on the self she held in her mind’s eye because if she did, she told me, she might slide into the black hole of illness. She wasn’t ready to let go of her husband, her son, her grandchildren. Reading her chart, I had some idea of the actual desperation of her condition. Twenty years before she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and survived. A decade later, unrelated to the cancer, her heart began, insidiously, to rebel. Now it was twice normal size, its maintenance dependent on a long list of medications that I scrambled to look up before administering: medicines to steady the ventricle that was prone to go into fibrillation, a disorganized quivering, and tablets that drew unwanted fluid from her tissues and dumped it into her veins, rushing it through to her kidneys. Without these she could, in an eye blink, go into heart failure. It seemed, from the physician’s note, that Mrs. Cardiff might expire at any moment. Standing before her that morning, her chart clenched in my hand, the light playing over her golden hair and vibrating the dust motes between us, I wondered if she sensed her fate. In my mind’s eye, I pictured what I might do to save her if, right before me, her heart stopped...


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