I draw the shortest straw among the three night nurses on my unit. Despite that I have less than six-months on the job, I’m the one floating to another floor (going to a different unit that you aren’t usually assigned to) that is short-staffed. When I arrive, I am assigned to the patient with the red X on the front of his thick chart.
Walking into his room, I am overwhelmed by the tubes and medical equipment that pack the small space. I thought I was ready for this new career, for my new title, “R.N.” until now. I pray the patient can’t read my face as I tinker with his intravenous tubing, read labels and assess the daunting task at hand.
Now I understand why this nursing unit is short-staffed, why nurses who usually don’t work on this floor are being asked to take their turn. It is 1984, and this emaciated man clinging to life in his hospital bed is dying of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
This morning, I read David Koon’s article in the Arkansas Times newspaper entitled, “Ruth Coker Burks, the cemetery angel.” I am sobbing by the time I finish, thinking back to the sunken eyes and frightened look on the face of the young man I cared for many years ago.
Ruth’s words resonate with me when she talks about how many men she came in contact with who never had any visitors, were abandoned by their families and died alone.
It sickens me to think about the way those of us in the medical profession in general, responded out of our own fear and lack of knowledge in the early days of the disease.
I am grateful for the medical advances we have discovered since that time, that treatments have improved, and that homophobia is less rampant.
Personally, I am thankful that I took the time while I was working in that young man’s hospital room years ago, to talk to him and to hold his hand while he was grimacing in pain.
I learned a lot that night as a young, naïve nurse – things that I could never learn in a book.
I learned that life can throw things at you that are unexplainable and devastating.
Our race, sexual orientation, religion and diagnosis don’t matter.
All that matters is if we have been seen and heard.
One heart, touching another.