A lifetime ago in the summer of 1965 I was looking for work to support my first year in college. After spending a week trying to sell Cutco knives door-to-door (that’s another story), I found a job as a Nurses Aid Trainee at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, CA. The fact I was near the bottom of the employment food chain was reflected in both my government rank of GS-2 and the associated pay of $2.50/hour.
But this story is not about low wages and government jobs. It’s about the experiences of a 17 year old boy who was about to see, hear and smell things that would make him a better man. Some of my friends had already left for prestigious Universities in the East, while others were headed for jungles in a different “East”. All would see, hear and smell things they’d never forget. But for three months in the summer of ’65 my experiences would be confined to a hospital learning important lessons about life by serving the needs of others.
I liked the uniform … white-over-white with a pocket in the top for pens, thermometers and the like. I even had my own stethoscope which was placed either around my neck or stuffed into a rear pants pocket. The real nurses, all women, wore white dresses, shoes and caps in those days. I soon learned to stay away from the ones with the black stripe on their cap because they had the most authority and didn’t mind using it.
One of our first lessons involved learning to change the linens on a bed with a person in it and how to give a person a bath in bed. The concept of a bed bath was familiar because my mother had given me a few during bouts of the measles, mumps, and the occasional flu bug. But to my teenage, Catholic horror, the VA didn’t use plastic manikins to practice on. They used real people, and WE were the “people”. That is, we were instructed to pair off and give each other a bath. No real problem for me to give one, but playing naked patient was a totally different thing for someone that rarely took his shirt off in public. I was looking for a way out, but a very large woman with a black stripe on her cap wouldn’t hear of it. From then on I learned to bathe regularly, wear clean underwear, and to pose naked in front of healthcare professionals … a skill I use ever more frequently as a senior citizen.
Life on the Ward
Except for an occasional visitor, weekends on the wards were fairly quiet. While walking down one of the cavernous hallways trying to look busy, I heard the echo of a person calling for help. I sprang to action, listened carefully to determine a direction and ended up at the entrance of a very large bathroom with a dozen open stalls. I could now tell it was the fragile cries of an elderly woman. Frozen in place, I asked myself, “What should I do?” I reasoned that it wasn’t an emergency … caught the odor of something that made me very uncomfortable and indicated to my trained nose it would involve some sort of “clean-up” … and concluded that for patient welfare I should get help from a “professional” … which I did! Bottom line … I “chickened” out. The woman lived and I ended up having to clean things up anyway.
Laughing will go into crying
We rotated assignments every few weeks and I’ll never forget my first day on the Geriatrics ward. My buddy (also 18) and I arrived on scene about 8 am (We had become close friends giving each other baths).
We confidently entered the very large day room to find three long walls lined with every sort of wrinkled, chair-bound person, sitting in every imaginable position, heads falling forward and to the side with saliva drooling from their mouths waiting to be fed. We couldn’t handle it. As if on cue, we stepped back hurriedly into the hallway, stared at each other in amazement and began laughing hysterically. To us it looked like a grotesque sideshow of human freaks. Then, as quickly as we began laughing, we started to cry … uncontrollably. After gaining our composure we braced ourselves and re-entered the room to do our jobs.
A month later I could be found every morning transferring Generals, Admirals and Commanders from wheelchairs to commode chairs, wheeling them into the same bathroom as mentioned above, inserting suppositories with gloved hand, serving some a small paper cup of prescribed whiskey, and waiting for bombs to land in the pans below.
To my surprise … I learned to enjoy it. It gave me pleasure to know I could help others who could not help themselves. Since then I’ve helped my wife “nurse” two children through childhood, offered free parenthood advice to the same as adults, and cared for both of my parents as their health failed … all using skills learned during the Summer of ’65.
I understand now
One day I was delivering meals and peeked through the windowed door of a man that was always asleep and never seemed to eat. This day his room was dark and he was making a strange rattling noise when he tried to breathe. I quickly found a nurse and asked her if we should do something. She said gently … “he doesn’t need anything … it’s called “conscientious neglect” … do you understand?” I nodded yes … but not really. Someone else was in his room the next day.
One of my assignments was to change an external urinary catheter on a man in his 30’s who had been a professional golfer. A car crash had left him unable to communicate (except for grunts and groans) and his body was in constant spasm. I tried to think of a way to draw him out by doing something that might interest him. The hospital had a small library, so we packed up and wheeled our way down there. I was excited. This was a chance to do something nice for a truly unfortunate person.
I found a copy of the S.F. Chronicle, opened it to the Sports page and, while standing behind him, stretched my arms past his head and held the paper in front of his face. His body suddenly went still. I knew then I had done a good thing and he must be thrilled with the opportunity to read the paper and catch up on the sport he loved as an athlete. Expecting nothing less than an appreciative grin, I peeked around from behind and saw, instead, a flood of tears.
“How could I have been so wrong?”, I thought. I folded up the paper, apologized for making him cry, and wheeled him quickly back to resume his “normal” life. Did he appreciate my efforts or consider it a cruel joke? He couldn’t tell me and I was too embarrassed to ask.
Three months training earned me a Nurses Aide diploma, a dent in my head where a psych patient hit me from behind with a glass ashtray, a stained uniform from clearing an alcoholic’s anal impaction, and up-close knowledge of old style electro shock, lobotomies and experimental LSD drug therapies.
All in all, a great summer. I didn’t choose Nursing as a career, but I learned a lot. Exactly what? You “Seniors” and “Baby Boomers” already know … you young ones need to turn off your “smart” phones, listen carefully to your elders and find a way to reach out to help others in some way. You’ll be made wiser from the experience, better prepared for life, and maybe get to wear a cool uniform.
Contributor: Keith Colgan – Lodi, CA