Sunday, January 27, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "You've got to be kind"

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- "God damn it, you've got to be kind.”

This is yet another memorable quote by the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He valued kindness even while skewering the unkind -- book banners, know-it-alls, warmongers. One of the coolest things about the quote is that he's advising us to be kind while swearing at us. Very Vonnegut. And maybe that is just what we need for emphasis.

Kindness is not a rare commodity if you know where to look for it. I recently went looking for it at our local hospital. I didn't set out to do so -- congestive heart failure brought me to the place where they address such things. Once I stepped in the door, all I received was kindness. Competence, too, but those things seem to go together. 

It's difficult dispensing daily kindness. CRMC nurses work 12-hour shifts and take care of sick people. Sick people are cranky and demanding. I found myself asking people to do things that I've done myself for most of 62 years. It's humbling and frustrating. Wires and tubes trailed from various parts of my body and it was a chore just to get up and go to the bathroom. I thought unkind thoughts but didn't take it out on those around me. If I had been in the hospital another few days, that may have changed.

I once considered a career in medicine. I considered several career fields before deciding on English and creative writing. During my college years, I worked as an orderly and nursing assistant at several hospitals. I'm not sure if hospitals have orderlies anymore. They do have CNAs or Certified Nursing Assistants. I was never certified, with most of my training happening on the job. My first hospital job was shuttling patients back and forth to X-Ray and other treatment rooms. I was 21 and s college dropout and happy to have a job. I was young so hauling around old people was easy. A lot of lifting and pulling and pushing. Patients were not always happy to see me. "X-Ray again? Harumph!" But I could handle eight hours a day of crankiness as the beach was waiting for me when I got off, as was life with friends and family. I didn't give much thought to the end of life, that place where most of my patients dwelled. It was a long way off and I had nothing but time. After doing the transportation bit for six months, I transferred over to a regular ward where I worked as a CNA taking vitals, changing beds and answering the call buttons of cranky patients. The work was harder but I got to work with a CNA named Sharon whom I had a crush on and later dated and lived and traveled with. That made all of the difference. She was very kind to me and I wasn't so good but that's another story.

I worked two other hospital jobs, One was the night shift at a Shriners Burns Institute in Boston. The hospital liked me so much that it wanted to send me to nursing school and pay for it. I probably should have done so as writers need actual jobs to survive. Instead, I moved back to Florida and went back to college as an English major. I went to work as an orderly in the drunk tank at the county hospital. Not glamorous work but steady enough to get me though a year of community college. I worked he 3-11 shift. Most of my work was supervising and wrangling alcoholics and drug addicts. That should have turned me away from booze forever, as I witnessed some gruesome deaths. Me and my fellow orderlies also responded to the psych ward when some muscle was needed. Sometimes it took three or four of us to subdue a raging mental patient. That's where I learned about straight jackets and psychotropic drugs and the hard realities of being crazy in America. Nurses and orderlies did hard duty in this ward, as most of them had scars to show off. This gave me a chance to see the other side of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," one of my favorite books. 

I had one other hospital job. At the University of Florida, I spent one summer working as a cafeteria cashier in the world-renowned Shands Teaching Hospital. My only contact with patients was taking their money for salads and roast beef sandwiches. When you're a cashier at a busy cafeteria, people don't really see you. They're hungry and they're chatting with friends or they're concerned about a patient or maybe they've just experienced a death. I rang stuff up with a minimum of fuss and tried to be friendly and kind. Most people didn't notice. I was free to observe people's faces and behaviors. This was a good place for a writer. There were always stories passing in front of me. I imagined them later in my journal. 

I was kind and observant.

Thanks for all of your kindnesses, CRMC staff! I won't forget it.

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