Sunday, October 24, 2010

Random Things

I've had the most random memories pop into my head lately. The one I can probably share without too much personal embarrassment is my favorite ER Nurse phone call. Back in the 90's, you could call an ER and speak to a nurse and ask them questions. We never really answered the questions, but we let you try. Now there is a long and tedious message at the beginning of the call that tells you the ER staff will not give you advice over the phone, but occasionally, someone makes it through even that obstacle to ask their question. We still don't answer. We hedge, we sympathize, we do not give advice over the phone. Even to those who think the rules do not apply to them.

My favorite ER Nurse call ever was in 1999. A pleasant young woman called on a not too busy night.

Caller: "I have a question. If I drop acid, will it interfere with my Amoxicillin?"

Me: (Trying not to laugh) "If you're going to drop acid, why do you care if it interacts with your Amoxicillin?"

Caller: "Well, I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt my body."

Me: (Not really hiding the laughter at this point) "Um, most of our drug books only cover legal drugs, so you're on your own. Sorry."

Caller: "That's okay. Thank you very much."

I miss the ER sometimes. I especially miss many of my co-workers, a very few of the patients, but none of the hours. The ability to work 72 hours a week (yes, a WEEK) when I worked ambulance, then four 12-hour night shifts in a row when I was a nurse are looooong gone. To my complete amazement my body is not like that of a twenty year old.

But even if I was not encumbered physically by having the good fortune of discovering sleep and therefore not wanting to give that up again, I'm kind of done with working in the ER. That's a really good thing since I'm not anymore. I haven't been ER staff since 2001, and while being the House Supervisor for 6 years after that had me there a lot, it was different to be able to play for a while and then LEAVE.

IV's? Codes? Sure, no problem. Seizure day? Oh hey, I'm busy in ICU - sorry. Not that I did that to my nurses all the time, but the point is that I COULD. I didn't have any direct patient responsibility. I only had responsibility for a 100,000 square foot building and everyone in it. Much easier.

What does any of that past experience have to do with writing, and more specifically, writing character? For me, it is an un-mined field. I have the great fortune of having been witness to the range of human experience, mostly on the tragic side, but all those responses to critical situations become tools for writing well. I have been absolutely floored by grace in times of difficulty, both from the RN's and MD's and from family and friends of those in my care. You can't make this stuff up. I've also seen what horrible things humans do to each other.

This speaks to motivation and situation, but mostly it gives me a vast and rich memory for story to use as I write. But I rarely use it.

I've been asking myself why not lately. I think that's where some of the odd memories are coming from - because I'm looking in my past for ways to illustrate action, or motivation, or cause. I have tons of "material." At a recent writing workshop, when I said I was a nurse, the teacher responded with a smile and said my profession was the goldmine for writers. And yet I don't want to or don't feel comfortable using it yet. Maybe I'm not far enough removed to revisit THOSE memories again - the ones that left me sleepless for days on end.

The other challenge is finding the right tone with stories specifically about human suffering. Sometimes you can be caustic, sometimes funny or flippant, but mostly you have to be respectful (I think) of human nature. I can show it in all its grace or depravity, but there still has to be a reverent acknowledgement that I know of these stories because I got to be a nurse. Who else gets to experience a hundred lifetimes of experience through others? Not many, and I thank the ER for that - the patients, the nurses, the docs.

So, here's a short list of "Things I Learned in the ER," and I hope it shows some of the scope of the experience, and some of the challenge of writing about it.

1. The weirdest things fit in the weirdest places. Patient confidentiality prohibits any further detail. Use your imagination and you still won't be able to encompass the full scope of this delightful human pastime. The excuses and explanations are all the same however.
2. The ability to have olfactory premonition is very helpful (I would sometimes smell blood right before a trauma - independently verifiable by my former coworkers). Either I have some level of psychic gift, or I'm a vampire. 
3.    An artery can shoot blood all the way across a room.
4.    Playing practical jokes on the doctors makes the day go by faster.
5.    Surgeons don’t have the ER sense of humor.
6.    People really do not realize when their hearts stop. If they are otherwise healthy and awake, they are incredibly surprised when I hit them in the chest, or shock them, and they yell “Ow! Hey! What’d you do THAT for?” (Well sir, your heart wasn’t beating).
7. Pain medicines do not take away all the pain; they make you not care that your leg is broken.
8.    There really is a light in your eyes that goes out when you die. Watching it is humbling.
9. People will accept suffering with an amazing amount of dignity and grace if they feel it is for a reason. Any reason.
10.    If you tell a mother that her eighteen-year-old son is dead, you will remember her face and her name forever.
11. If you advocate for a mother to hold her seven-year-old child one more time, she will remember your face and your name forever.


Jo Taylor

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