Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Part VI: The Way Mike Worked -- How I Almost Became a Nurse

The five-year-old boy from New Hampshire didn't talk much. He held up his right hand as the nurse dressed his wounds and I stood by to assist. The tiny hand was imprinted with concentric circles and looked as if someone had given the boy a special tattoo, although he was much too young. The reality was much worse. An adult, his mother, had punished the boy by pressing his hand into a hot electric stove burner. Third-degree or "full thickness" burns. The top layer of skin (epidermis) is destroyed as is the bottom layer -- the dermis. So are the nerve endings. Because the epidermis and hair follicles are gone, new skin cannot grow. The burn must be treated and then skin grafts are applied. This boy was a long way from skin grafting.

He would be in the burn unit for awhile, which is OK because everything was paid for. This was a Shriners Burns Institute (now Shriners Hospital for Children's--Boston), supported by millions raised by the guys with funny hats who drive funny cars in your local Fourth of July parade. I lived with my girlfriend Sharon in a walk-up one-bedroom on the poor side of Beacon Hill. It was winter and very cold. I wished I was on a Florida beach where I had been this time last year. I was cold yet fascinated by the work I did and observed as a nursing assistant/orderly at the hospital.

One morning, as I was getting off of work, the head nurse asked to see me. She asked me if I was interested in becoming a nurse. The hospital would pay for my education. I was stunned by the offer. I was torn, too. Just recently this dropout and former marine biology major had decided to go back to school and major in English and become a notable writer or at least one who got his stuff published. What to do? A secure future in the medical field? Insecure future with the other thing? I chose the other thing.

But not before I discussed it with Sharon. She was pondering the same thing, going back to school to major in nursing. Maybe we could go to the same school, University of Connecticut in Storrs, the place where she'd started college three years earlier -- she also was a dropout. Most of the people we knew were dropouts who went on to do interesting things with their lives. The Shriners staff wanted me to go to school in Boston. What to do?

As I pondered, I walked to my graveyard shift at the hospital and Sharon rode the MTA to her graveyard shift job at Deaconess Hospital in the burbs. She looked good in white. She looked good in anything. She told me stories of "rubbers," the guys who rubbed against women on the subway. One day she waited for her train when a young guy emerged half-naked from the shrubbery and began to masturbate in front of her. Those stories made me want to punch somebody, anybody. It made me want to ride with her every morning and every evening, to protect her. She was good at what she did and knew it. I was good at what I did but didn't know it. The die had already been cast. I just didn't know it.

Two years earlier, I had screwed up my chance of a military career. I know now that it was an act of sabotage. My mentors had lined up to promote my brilliant career. I failed them, on purpose. I didn't want to tell them no. Inside, I said no-no-no. Had I also failed myself? I guess, at 22, I didn't know. Here was another opportunity. It looked mighty good to a young man with no prospects.

When the night was slow, I gathered in a break room with the other nursing assistants. We stayed awake by drinking tea and eating chocolate. Some of the others were already in nursing school and spent the time starting IVs on each other. It kind of creeped me out but who was I to judge? I ran blood samples over to the Mass General lab through a spooky underground tunnel. I'm sure that it was well-used during the day. But at night? There was a camera and squawk box at each end. I pushed a button at the Mass General end and someone would eventually come on the line and asked my identity. I was admitted into the hospital basement. I skipped riding up the freight elevator because it smelled like formaldehyde. "That's where they bring up the dead animals, you know, for the med students to practice on. Human corpses, too. The morgue's down in the basement" The graveyard shift guy in the lab liked to pull my chain. At least I think he was pulling my chain.

Some of our young charges died at night. Burns can be horrific. House fires. Electrocutions. Accidents. Burns do terrible things to a body. Third degree burns with lung damage were bad. Very, very bad. Sometimes children are trapped in fires. Old people, too. Not only are their skins less dense, but their lungs are especially vulnerable. Kids' lungs are still developing. Oldsters' lungs are sensitive to everything.

I bugged out of Boston in March. Sharon and I pledged our love and promised to keep in touch. I hitched up to Connecticut a month later to see her and we drove out to the Cape. She came down to Florida in May and we drove to the Keys and camped. By the end of the summer, we were no longer a couple. I went back to school at the local community college. Sharon went to UConn. I sometimes wonder if she became a nurse or something else. What long and winding road did she take? 

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