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Akward Words In An Elevator

The meaning of words depends on who is listening

By David MetzgerPublished 3 years ago 8 min read

Nurses, probably more than any other group of people, are accustomed to encountering death and pain. Although we are certainly affected by the suffering of others, our job calls for a measure of detachment, the ability to move forward without faltering. The traumas we experience here on this pediatric oncology unit are sometimes compartmentalized because it is a helpful device to make it through a hard shift and a challenging career. These traumatic moments are rarely predictable in form, though. It is often the case that among my diverse set of pediatric patients on any given day, some are quite sick and sad while others are doing just fine and may even be preparing to go home.

I have casually walked into a patient’s room, excited and ready to lay a juicy joke at the foot of a child who I knew would appreciate it, only to encounter a tiny face, dark and purple from a freak anaphylactic reaction. I have also witnessed a three-year-old’s last dying breath met by incongruent booms of laughter from a set of grieving parents. Such is the diversity of what we have come to call the human experience and the perverse humor to be found in the darkest of places. In any case, I’ve come to expect and accept that grief is a comfortable bed fellow to laughter and that the cruel joke is often on me.

Whether by intention or unconscious reframing, humor is most often the vehicle upon which we nurses navigate the uncommon horror stories which seem to be written for our eyes alone. It is a dark, inappropriate, jaded humor. It is shot casually from the clever hip and left to ricochet from wall to wall until it finds its mark—another nurse, weary from the day and in dire need of an emotional pick me up.

I recall relaxing in the nurse break room one day when an irked and entirely over it colleague of mine mentioned to nobody in particular that her young patient’s mom was literally barefoot and could not afford to buy a pair of shoes. That was just the beginning of the woman’s bad luck. Her daughter, who suffered from a form of cancer called osteosarcoma, had recently undergone a below the knee amputation of her right leg (it was an easy choice of life over limb). There are literally thousands of appropriate sensitive responses to this sad sad story of pedal want, yet, from the corner of the room, a bold nurse offered the terse consolation that the mother’s shoe dilemma, albeit unfortunate, was not a hopeless one.

“Look on the bright side," he said, "Her daughter no longer needs her right shoe. The mom can use it and she’s halfway to her goal.”

Amputee humour is just classic, isn’t it? Normally, I would have feigned a surprised gasp at this clever quip, followed by an equally appreciative chuckle. Instead, I just sat there, silently waiting for the reaction I knew would come. What else could I do? I was the inappropriate nurse who offered that tasteless observation and it’s uncouth to laugh at one’s own jokes, right? Indeed, my nurse friends reacted with predictable faux horror followed by genuine delight. Only then did I relax my straight face and give in to a proper self-congratulatory belly laugh.

Such is the manner in which we frontline caregivers often buoy our spirits against all the pain, death, sadness, grief, and utter hopelessness which we witness and emotionally wade through every single day and I am indeed one of the biggest offenders. I literally cannot help myself. If the seed of something funny begins to germinate in my verdant mind, there exists no barrier which might block the passage of this comedic bolus from exiting my brain and out my lips if there exists the vague possibility of someone chuckling at it. I fully admit it. I am a whore for laughs.

In most cases, this impulse is far from an occupational hazard. In fact, most of my patients and especially their wide-eyed parents greatly appreciate my off the wall and often on-point observations. It’s hard being a parent of a chronically or morbidly ill child. It is especially difficult to exist in a hospital room for days, weeks, and sometimes months on end with not much to do and only your barfing, narcotic laced son or daughter to keep you company. Whenever I’m able to add a bit of levity to a parent’s monotony by making light of the utter ridiculousness of an experience of parenthood which we share together or just make them smile, I consider this my personal honor and joy. And, once again. I am a big ol’ whore for laughs.

But even the most gifted comic will at one time or another perform a brilliant set which falls upon deaf ears or utter an overly complicated anecdote which descends down a bottomless crevasse, never to see the light of day or even the glow of the moon again. And so it happened that, I too, eventually opened my gigantic mouth so wide that I somehow managed to stick, not one, but two feet inside of it, all the way down my intestinal tract, and out my own asshole at which point I kicked myself in my own butt.

The day had been busy. The kids had been sicker and needier than usual, their call lights sending constant and impatient buzzes to the phone tucked into the pocket of my scrubs. I often left a particular room only to be called back a few minutes later to address a beeping machine or assess a new pain and, while I was there, be called to yet another patient. Even as a seasoned nurse, I was overwhelmed by the many complicated and evolving tasks before me. To make matters worse, I had skipped breakfast that morning and barely found a moment to pee. By the time my lunch hour came, I was famished, dehydrated, and a bit punchy.

When I entered the half-filled elevator which would usher me seven floors down to the heavenly oasis of a greasy patty melt and an ice cold diet coke I noticed 2 people commiserating closely in the far corner. She was a middle aged woman with bouffant, platinum blonde hair and snug leopard patterned pants. He was a physician of some sort. I could tell from the shiny stethoscope draped around his neck like a docile pet snake. Although I was not particularly interested in their insular conversation I also was not disinterested, so I listened in.

“Let me tell you about my daughter,” she railed enthusiastically to the man standing close beside her. “She is talented. She is witty. She is just stunningly gorgeous and….”

But the mom did not have a chance to finish her thought because from the far corner of the elevator I interrupted her, “Oh man! She sounds amazing! Can I have her number?,” I asked.

Still to this day, I have no idea what part of my rational brain determined that this bold query was in any way appropriate, necessary, or wise. The blonde mom turned to me, distraught and slack-jawed. I noticed then that her watery blue eyes were red and puffy as if she had been crying for a century or two.

“My daughter is dying, young man. The doctors can’t help her. They don’t think she’ll live through the night...and...and…”

Her words trailed off and were replaced by deep ugly sobs of anguish. In that moment, my heart clenched up. I broke her penetrating gaze and began a focused examination of my feet. Rivers of sweat began to escape from my armpits. My stomach dropped downed to my feet and I experienced the queer sensation of a human body quickly descending down the final steep section of a colossal roller coaster.

In my mind, I felt an overwhelming combination of fear, regret, and remorse. Oh my God, I could lose my job over something like this! What did I get myself into? How could I treat another human being so cruelly? As these thoughts tornadoed around my broken mind, I looked back at the woman. She looked straight back into my eyes too and continued her words where her sobs had ended them.

“...and….and...I am so touched that you are so thoughtful to have asked for her room number so that you can pay your respects. You are a very sweet boy. She’s in room 13 in the ICU.”

“...Um, of course,” I heard myself say automatically. “I’m so sorry for what’s happening. I’d love to visit your daughter.”

The woman took in a deep cleansing breath, stepped forward, and embraced me. I hugged her back. The elevator door opened with a faint ding. We both stepped out and headed our separate ways. She to her dying daughter. Me, to a well-deserved patty melt and a diet coke....and french fries. Today, I would absolutely be eating french fries.

As I sat alone in the cafeteria stuffing my face, I marveled at how lucky I had been that this poor, poor mother had misconstrued my awkward propositioning of her dying daughter as a genuine and caring act. It made me realize that, in the worst of times, people often manufacture the meaning they need in place of the meaning which comes their way. They seek out the goodness when everything around them is dark and just so so shitty.

After my shift was over that day, I did indeed make my way down to room 13 as I said I would. I felt too fortunate to not respect the promise I had made to the platinum blonde mom. Unlike my unit, where the rooms are contained and private, the rooms in the intensive care unit are quite exposed and, on one side, boarded by a sliding glass door wall. I stood just outside that transparent wall, looking in. I could see my friend from the elevator and four or five other family members standing over the bed of an obtunded young lady in a hospital gown. The girl was unconscious. There were countless lines and wires from her infusion pump snaking around her body and under her bed sheet. A large intubation tube, providing the ventilation necessary to breathe was taped to her face and inserted deeply into her trachea. Her lungs belonged to the machine. Even with all this medical equipment and her obvious sickly state, she did indeed have an almost angelic quality to her. As her mom had promised me back in the elevator, she was absolutely a gorgeous girl. I could see that.

Without disturbing the vigil of the grieving family, I turned around and left for home.

To hear this essay as a podcast visit Nurse Papa the podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Enjoy this immersive audio experience. For more essays on parenthood and life beyond, visit the Nurse Papa blog Enjoy!


About the Creator

David Metzger

David is a pediatric oncology nurse and father. His book, titled 16 Meditations On Parenthood From A Pediatric Oncology Nurse, will be available August 2021 from GenZ press.

David is also the host and creator of the Nurse Papa podcast.

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    David MetzgerWritten by David Metzger

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