Her lower back ached, and there were three hours more before she would be heading home. She lit up the screen at the foot of her sickest patient’s bed to chart on his worsening pain, and at that moment, forgot about her own.
The poor man moaned and the furrows of his seventy-five-year-old brow deepened. A ventilator breathed for him and a catheter drained a scant amount of cloudy, dark yellow urine. She scrolled his list of medication looking for the best option to comfort him, but how long had it been since his last dose?
Only one bag of IV fluids, and that bag was three-quarters full, enough to last through her shift. She folded back the sheet and blanket from his left arm and used a penlight to examine the back of his hand to find the IV sight clean and all tape intact. The man showed his Popeye muscles. He jerked his arm out of her grip with surprising strength when she tried to place his arm in a more natural position. Startled, she took a step back.
“Okay,” she whispered. “Put your arm wherever you like, but I was just trying to make you comfortable.”
She covered his shoulder and walked to the other side of the bed to complete her assessment, and the man opened his eyes. It was too dark to see if they were brown, black, blue or hazel. She lifted her stethoscope from around her neck and whispered again. “Let me listen to your heart. I’ll be quick.”
It used to be that a nurse could warm her stethoscope by rubbing it against the palm of her ungloved hand. No so anymore. “I’m sorry, but this might still be cold.”
Her left hand slipped under his hospital gown for a listen. Irregular—few of the hearts on the herunit beat to a regular rhythm. His lungs crackled, depending on where she listened, and the ventilator did the work for him since he’d lost his drive to breath. Compensating.
She listened for nearly a minute before she heard a weak rumble in his belly. “Not good, but adequate,” she said. “Something’s moving.” She stepped to the foot of the bed and exposed his feet.
The nurse before her had marked an X on the spot where the strongest pulse could be found. Faint, but present. Feet warm to the touch. But the man’s heels were dry. She didn’t turn on the lights, but imagined a pool of crusty, skin flakes on the sheet. Lotion. Lots of lotion.
She removed her gloves to retrieve the small bottle from the bedside stand and poured a healthy amount into her palm. Her next three minutes were spent massaging an old man’s feet and calves.
Midway through, she realized that she should be wearing gloves. There was that story about a nurse getting scratched by a nasty and scraggly toenail. Uggh! But that didn’t happen and she rubbed her hands together as she walked to the sink. They were smooth and unscathed.
She went back to the bedside stand and squirted out a spot of lotion to counteract the effects of strong antibacterial hand soap. She rubbed some on the back of her hands and massaged between her fingers and around her wrists.
The screen behind her had gone black and needed a refresh. She tapped the keyboard and recorded her assessment findings. Done.
She remembered the grimace on her patient’s face and wondered if anything had changed, so she took the few steps to the head of the bed.
A hand reached out from under the covers. The grimace was gone and his eyes were open. The old man’s hand tremored and waited for her response. Begging with those eyes. She didn’t start out wanting to work on this unit—where patients couldn’t talk or communicate well, and she hated having words put into her own mouth, but this man was wanting to ask for something, and she was sure what it was.
“You want some lotion on your hands too?”
The corners of his lips turned up as much as the tube and tape would allow.
“Of course you do,” she said softly.
She went for the lotion a third time.
“This stuff has no scent. None of that fancy oil or wrinkle remover, but it’ll do the trick,” she said.
He smiled with his eyes.
“Feels good, huh.”
The nurse returned his smile. She stroked one hand for only a few seconds before the one with the IV in it came out shaking like a hungry squirrel. The nurse gave her hands another squirt and slathered it over her palms and fingertips. Careful not to disturb his IV or the finger oximeter, she massaged her patient’s hands until he’d closed his eyes.
The monitor above the bed showed a slower heartrate and a regular rhythm.
She arched her back after sliding the heavy glass door closed, and her fingers went to the small of her back to rub what ached. No pain in Heaven.
Well, the rest of her shift flew by. The charting, checking labs, calling for an urgent respiratory treatment for her other patient, and then calling family. The unit was bustling by 7:30 a.m.
The sun highlighted her car’s streaky windshield and made her think of retiring and using her days for cleaning and chores and shopping and reading and going places instead of going home to sleep.
I don’t know how many years I’ll have. I’m sixty-five.
She’d forgotten to use lotion on her face and hands before she crawled into bed. Room-darkening blinds already closed, and the thermostat already set on 67°.
Too late. Lotion can wait until this afternoon, or until I get to Heaven, whichever comes first.
The slow, metronome-like white noise of a ventilator had followed her home and she drifted off to sleep feeling that her body couldn’t handle many more twelve-hour shifts.
The sound of traffic outside and a distant train whistle did not interrupt her sleep. The sounds a house makes when nobody’s up and about did not phase her, and the sun was blocked twice, first by those light-blocking shades and second by her closed eyelids. There was no furrow on her brow.
She rolled over about 2 p. m. as if to brush off a dream. She and her nightshift coworkers call them daydreams even though they happen during sleep.
It seemed that she had arrived in Heaven and the praising and thanking and the worship had paused for a talk with Jesus.
“What’s a nurse supposed to do here in Heaven?” she said.
There’s plenty for you to do.
“How is that? No more pain. No more death. No need for hospital beds and ventilators.”
“It’s great up here. Don’t get me wrong. The joy and the freedom and the singing, but they’re begging down there for nurses with my experience, and the patients are so much sicker than they used to be.”
You want to go back?
She tossed her pillow to the other side of her bed and fanned the blanket. “No. But you don’t need nurses up here. You don’t need nurses up here. You really don’t need nurses up here! What is a nurse supposed to nurse up here?”
She squeezed her eyelids closed before allowing herself to wake. Her hand went to her shoulder and patted, not her own shoulder, but the warm and bigger-than-life hand she felt there even after she knew it was only a dream.
But was there more to her dream? She took in enough breath for a long sigh. “Then how can I be useful in heaven? Why does God want me there?”
Her dream didn’t continue. They never do. She crawled out of bed the same way she’d crawled in when no voice from Heaven came down to lift her up.
Breakfast, when regular folks are planning supper. Opening her Bible in the middle of the afternoon. She picked up where she had left off the day before at Revelation, the 14th chapter—the dream still on her mind.
“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13, ESV).
“Maybe I can’t begin to interpret all this verse might mean,” she spoke aloud where only the Holy Spirit could hear her. “Jobs won’t be a job up there, and I think maybe I’d like to be a nurse in Heaven. No need for IVs, cardiac monitors or ventilators. No slow logins. No charting. Absolutely no bedpans!” The nurse looked up as if confirming that her whimsical prayer would make it all the way through the clouds John spoke of when he wrote Revelation.
As it often happens during her afternoon Bible readings, her thoughts traveled back to the hospital. That old guy, the one whose eyes spoke appreciation for a simple foot massage had been a pastor. She searched for the verse about beautiful feet. She knew it was in scripture. Somewhere.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7, ESV).
She kept reading in Isaiah and never did get back to the planned reading in Revelation. Things were settled though. If the only job she has in heaven during pauses in the singing and praising is to apply lotion to the feet of the saints, she will be most satisfied and highly qualified.
(This post is dedicated to all those night shift nurses out there, especialy the ones who still offer backrubs. I retired from nursing, but have the occasional dream about caring for patients. In the “old days” new nurses were taught to always to offer a sleeptime backrub. What happened to that hospital ritual? A foot rub was the next best thing, and I remember a tall, lanky preacher, with not much left on his bones but those Popeye muscles. He really appreciated a good foot rub.)