While volunteering at an urban medical center, Laura Novak thought she knew the score. She was wrong.
She was a stealth nurse, silent and so short she could slip under radar. She was the Zen RN of newborn intensive care, unflappable and serene in a world where the sights and sounds assault the senses.
A sigh or a push on her glasses could telegraph anything from euphoria to compassion fatigue. It was just so hard to tell. The nurse played her cards close to the chest—a defense mechanism, to be sure. One I had not yet mastered.
She had been one of my son’s primary nurses. She patiently taught me to tube feed and suction. I learned to snap air bubbles from a syringe by mimicking her impossibly petite fingers. She later mentored me as a volunteer in the unit, steadily explaining complex diagnoses and care. This included imparting psychosocial details of families, to help me better understand and anticipate a patient’s fate. Usually, that is.
One of her charges was approaching his first birthday. He was born with abdominal wall and cardiac defects. He was trach dependent, high-tone, and high-strung, a baby on perpetual overload from the cacophonous cocoon that was his home.
His name topped the volunteers’ roster of needy babies, so the nurse and I teamed up for the long term. From his swing, where we would put him for a change of pace, the boy called the shots, dictating our eye contact and touch. He would toss off time-out signals semaphore-style, flapping his arms to indicate his level of overload.
Some days I spent an entire shift revolving around him without any contact. To do otherwise was to watch him devolve emotionally and backslide medically.
The baby’s mother, reportedly a drug addict, was AWOL, so his father became the only parent in this baby’s life. But the dad was as chaotic as the nurse was centered. When he said he’d show up, he was punctual, that much I could say. But his arrival invariably ratcheted up the already bristling atmosphere.
If the tiny nurse’s aura was a soothing china blossom pink, this man’s was psychedelic and jarring. His eyes were neon yellow. His skin appeared bathed in Betadine. Blue jeans and T-shirts hung helter-skelter on his rangy frame.
As a former crime reporter, I fancied I knew the score. I would scan his arms for track marks. Failing to find evidence, I figured the fluorescent lights were to blame. The dad’s jerky movements upset the already tenuous boy. I was relieved when, more often than not, he neglected to show. The nurse would switch her gum to the other cheek, and remain uncharacteristically mum on the psychosocial background she had on the kaleidoscopic man.
One day the nurse said she needed my help. Dad had come for discharge teaching, but he’d brought the older siblings. The nurse was flushed. Her energy was distorted. She said nothing else. I complied.
In the scrub room I found a Seussian nightmare. Thing One and Thing Two were tearing gowns off racks. They scooted under sinks and careened into lockers. Dad implored me with his glowing eyes. He stated their names, and said they were almost two and nearly three. Then he tore their arms from around his legs.
“Please just take them, ” he begged, thrusting a bottle of juice at me.
This is an urban medical center. The windowless television room was outside the unit, down the hall. The boy began slamming his head alternately between the steel door and the cinderblock walls. My psychobabble entreaties to calm him were pathetic.
The girl sat rigidly on my lap. My hands rested momentarily on her knees, when she abruptly clamped her thighs closed. Horrified by her skill at keeping adult hands from her inner thighs, my eyes darted nervously across the shadowy room. A television droned a Spanish soap opera. A family, languishing on vinyl settees bolted into the walls, cast me furtive glances.
That someone else might question my intentions with the girl was beyond belief.
I was in the medical world. But I was not of it. I did not have years of training or experience on how to protect my personal liability, which rapidly became of paramount concern. In five minutes in that television lounge, I realized I would have to model myself on the professionals so skilled at protecting their reputations and careers from anything remotely resembling a false allegation.
Eventually another volunteer heard the screams the children emitted when it dawned on them that their dad had left them with a stranger, and she came to my rescue. By then, my favorite stealth nurse had become the target of my newfound wrath, for asking me to take care of the kids when that was beyond the scope of my volunteer duties.
I homed in on her the following week in her usual spot, failing at first to notice a newborn on a new bed beside her.
“Don’t ever do that to me again,” I lit into her, jabbing my finger in the air. She exhaled heavier than usual, and pushed up her glasses.
“Dad died last week just after you saw him,” she said. “End stage liver disease. We discharged the baby to extended family over the weekend.”
My hand flew to my mouth. My eyes darted to calculate the loss. This man wasn’t yet 30. He left behind three fragile, motherless children in diapers.
The nurse gently patted my arm and squeezed past me to tend to her new patient. A syringe in her right hand pointed safely toward heaven. Tiny beads of narcotic dripped off the tip.
She had known all along that the father was going to die, she admitted. Whereas I was so quick to judge the father, his drug use, and lifestyle, her silence was a bouquet of dignity for a young family awash in trouble.
“X-ray,” someone shouted from a nearby bed. I stepped sideways. The team of doctors rounding next to me jostled for space. Phones rang. A ventilator shrieked. An occluded feeding pump beeped. Someone laughed. The cacophony continued.
The only thing missing was the chaos.