I still remember his face.
Specifically, I remember his eyes. Milk chocolate brown through thin framed glasses, looking up from his twin sized hospital bed with rails on all sides, securing (or encasing him, depending on who was looking) a solid grip to his shaky hand.
I remember his hair. Dark brown and tosseled, like he had woken from a bad dream only to realize that it was real. His white undershirt and flannel pants in stark contrast to the white washed room, complete with white linen sheets and towels – his new home for as long as necessary to get his treatment in safely and quickly.
It’s 10 past midnight. I’m on my final mentorship night shift with my motherly preceptor Donna. I have left the sanctuary of our little office where she & I had just finished bickering over what pizza to order to celebrate, and what to sneak a quick 20 min break watching bad TV streaming on the one good computer with sound, to answer the bell of the patient we had picked up at 2330. I had a brief chance to look over the care plan: in for high dose methotrexate, or rituximab, or something that required overnight stays and consistent observation for Non Hodgkins Lymphona, the ‘good’ lymphoma so to speak. I’m in my signature purple scrubs – a boxy cotton blend top with a matching boxy cotton blend bottom, and my mood is joyous as I saunter down the hall to the 2nd last room on the left.
“Hi! My name is Chloe. Donna & I will be your nurses tonight. How can I help you?”
And that’s when I saw his eyes. His beautiful, young, forlorn eyes as he looked up from his bed in response to my greeting. I was taken aback – this guy can’t be more than 30… he looks my age. He’s handsome. He looks shocked.
We lock eyes for what seems like an eternity. I’m acutely aware of my breathing and mentally repeat to myself “don’t bite your lip, don’t bite your lip” as we both wait for the other to make the next move. In those moments past midnight in a dark and cold building I feel his sadness. He looks defeated, dejected, almost embarassed. I don’t think he was expecting me.
Finally he breaks eye contact with me and puts his head down. With barely a whisper above the constant whoosh of the IVF entering his veins, he says simply “I have to go to the bathroom.”
Oh, I think, ok. That’s easy.
I rush to his side to offer my hand to help him up. He grabs the side rail of his bed with all his strength, if somehow to show me that he is still a man. He shakes his head politely to my outstretched hand, and I move it to his IV pole and guide him into his private area. He slowly but surely seats himself, and before I can offer any more assistance, I simply ask “Are you ok?” He nods his head and I shut the door, seeing his head hung once more before leaving his room for good.
I walk slowly back to the office with my heart breaking, fighting back tears as I see Donna and Kailey, our 1:1 partner on our line. Donna peers up and instantly knows somethings wrong – I’ve changed.
“Donna… Can you look after room 21 tonight? I… I don’t think he was expecting me.”
“I understand. He’s 27. He wasn’t expecting you to be so beautiful.”
It turns out that despite our average age of 29, my patient in room 21 had seemingly been lucky and had each RN looking after him, with the exception of me, be our old bitties. Each old enough to be his mother, this 27 year old guy was hidden from the awkwardness of being cared for by girls who, in a better time and more appropriate place, he would be buying drinks and dinner – not seeking assistance with the most simple, basic, and intimate tasks of living.
“It’s not that Donna…”, and it isn’t. I’m 2/2 nights out, haven’t showered due to fatigue, have minimal make up on and my hair in its perpetual bun, I’m hardly a sight for sore eyes. It’s different, “it’s that he’s my age, and I’m helping him to the bathroom. It shouldn’t be like this.”
“I know Chloe,” she says, smiling the way mothers do when they know they are right, “he know’s you’re his nurse, but he wasn’t expecting you to be so beautiful.”
Donna takes care of him for the rest of the night. She assists him back to bed after pulling his pants up with tender loving care, and peeks in on him as a new mother peeks in on her infant. I know that technically I’m not carrying my full load as an RN – 6 patients from 2330-0730 – with the light assistance of my mentor, the entire purpose of the program I was lucky to get into, but I don’t care. I’m not the nurse he needs – not because I’m incompetent or incapable, but because I can’t give him the care he needs without emasculating what’s left of the manhood cancer hasn’t stolen away.
It isn’t the way he wanted to meet me – and it’s never the way I want to meet anyone. Yet meet I do, every day, for 8 or 12 or 16 hours of my life. I meet cancer patients at the worst point of their journey. Young, old, sick, well, dying, living. You’re at your worst and sometimes so am I. Because cancer is an indiscriminate thief – latching on to whatever energy is presented and proliferating until it consumes every hour, minute, and second of your life.
At 0745 I’m in my dads grey SUV, exhausted from my second night readjusting my body to the demands of shift work. But my aching body is no match for the pain in my heart and the spinning in my head. I know this isn’t the last time I’ll care for a young and beautiful patient – it won’t be the last time I cry at work over decisions I’m responsible for fulfilling yet have no authority over – it won’t be the last time I leave miserable with the burden of misbelief that I can make a difference. Yet the simple truth is, I can’t do anything else.
I love being a nurse. Even when it seems like every shift is a nail in a life-long coffin of my choosing.