Monthly Archives: March 2014

July 4, 1959

Memory is wonderful, mysterious and sometimes completely unreliable. We start to remember things around two years of age but something called childhood amnesia makes recalling most of those memories impossible. The recorder may be running but there are Nixonian gaps in the tape.

My life, at least that which I can remember most clearly, starts around age five. I can recall the house in which we lived, the neighbors on either side of us and significant events like Gaynell Wright’s surprise birthday party or Anita Tillman giving me my first kiss. But anything before that is largely gone, save for a few unforgettable moments that emerge from the fog that remain because they were either traumatic (being scared witless by a loud motorcycle engine when I was two), or they touched my soul on a very deep level.

I’m almost four years old and we are going to watch the fireworks somewhere outside of town, away from the insistent glow of street lights. It’s very dark; the only thing I can see out the window are thousands of tiny, winking lights in the trees—fireflies whose numbers will dwindle in the coming decades. We stop by the side of the road, parking behind a long line of cars. He stops the engine and kills the lights, but leaves the radio on for amusement or just to pass the time until the fireworks begin.

Losing one sense often enhances another; I cannot see but I can hear and that makes all the difference. Three gentle electric guitar chords, followed by piano triplets reminiscent of “Chopsticks” but haunting, ethereal. Then a soft voice crooning:

My love must be a kind of blind love

I can’t see anyone but you…

But it’s the background refrain that stays with me forever.

She-bop-she-bop, doo-bop-she-bop

Doo-bop-she-bop, doo-bop-she-bop

I don’t remember the fireworks or the trip home, or anything else for the next year. But whenever I hear the Flamingos singing “I Only Have Eyes For You”, I remember brick streets and iron lampposts, the shadows of people from a small Midwestern town gathering by the cornfields and a sense of peace that would be lost for forty years.

Photo Credit: Canstock Photo

The best teachers aren’t always in a classroom

I became a hospital orderly the summer before my seventeenth birthday. I’d been a busboy at a local restaurant but seventy-five cents an hour wouldn’t be enough for college and medical school. One of my high school classmates worked a part-time as a hospital phlebotomist and suggested talking with someone in administration, but whomever I met with wasn’t interested.

However, in late spring 1971, the hospital was looking for orderlies. I applied and was accepted.  I don’t remember my training beyond learning medical abbreviations and why one should never let go of a thermometer when taking a baby’s temperature rectally. Yes, we used glass thermometers with red tips for rectal temperatures; the oral thermometers had blue tips, and they were all kept in stainless steel containers of alcohol—separately, of course.  (Do you know the other difference between an oral and a rectal thermometer?  The taste…)

I learned how to make beds, give baths, serve and collect food trays and other things that made the nurses’ lives easier. I kept track of patients’ intake—a standard hospital cafeteria glass of liquid was 240cc–and output—measuring urine emptied from a bedpan or a Foley catheter bag. I answered call lights and took reports or requests back to my nurse.

That summer I worked the midnight shift on one of the medical floors and it was one of the best times of my life.  The nurses and other aides treated me as a responsible adult instead of a “useless” teenager. Nurses with more seniority worked the coveted 7-3 shift; supervisors were conspicuously absent at night. While the patient to staff ratio was more than double that of the day shift, the patients were usually sleeping and not much trouble.

The man I worked with taught me more about patient care than any physician. His first name was Paul; I don’t remember his last name.  I couldn’t tell you how old he was—I’d guess late 50s or early 60s. Everyone looks old when you’re 17.  He had lived through the Great Depression and served in World War II, acquiring life experiences I couldn’t imagine. If he’d seen terrible things, you would never have known it. His face was worn but kind; he reminded me of the man in Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech.  But what surprised me most was that he was an older white guy who didn’t seem to notice that I was a darker skinned kid with kinky hair.

Paul talked to me earnestly about the night’s routines: how often to check on the patients; who needed their temperatures and blood pressures taken; what to do when the occasional call bell rang.  He took the job seriously and would never think of violating the trust of those who depended on him.

One of our patients was a bed-ridden elderly lady, Winnie, who had developed an enormous bed sore in her back while residing at a local nursing home.  She lay in a fetal position because of permanent muscle contractures.  Her eyes would open but she didn’t speak or react.  Yet Paul was very careful to tell Winnie what we were about to do. “We’re going to turn you to your other side, now, Winnie,” or “We need to clean you up a little.” He was always gentle; he never rushed patient care or treated it as a necessary evil for a paycheck.

I never thanked him for what he taught me because I didn’t realize how important that experience was until many years later.

I think anyone contemplating medical school should have to work as an aide for six months minimum. If you can’t approach people at their most vulnerable with understanding and compassion, without being irritated or disgusted, then you shouldn’t be in medicine.