July 11, 2005

Rambling Thoughts from the Emergency Room

Perhaps it is because I am the caretaker type, but I have actually spent quite a bit of time in emergency rooms, hospitals, and nursing homes. Always, eventually, the scenario comes down to the same thing: the person I am with gets enough pain medication and dozes off. By then of course, it is close to dawn. I go off to find a vending machine or telephone. I never remember to bring a sweatshirt, so I borrow a white blanket, which I wear draped around me. Because I have a horrible sense of direction and because I am desperately tired, I get lost trying to find my way back to the room, and end up wandering the hospital in the middle of the night in a dazed stupor, trailing a white blanket like I am some kind of ghost.

The hospital setting brings back all kinds of unsettling memories. Wandering around bleeding and crying and feeling utterly alone the long night of a traumatic car accident. Trying to get information from doctors about whether or not my aunt was dying. Talking to my father-in-law as he was admitted, gasping for air, just before he died of lung cancer. Bringing my kids and my brother's stepkids to visit my sister-in-law in the hospital day after day when she would not get better. Trying to find my grandmother in the intensive care unit and realizing I could barely recognize the contorted and bloated body in the bed.

The worst part of an emergency room, though, is seeing so many people in pain. I don't mean the physical pain. Almost every person I saw last night, many of them quite old, was alone. The woman in the next bed kept calling, "Someone help me." The overworked nurse was doing her best to chat with every person in every bed, but clearly there was no way she could give emotional support to that many patients. Especially when the cops started bringing in the drunk and unruly patients.

When I was taking care of my aunt in a nursing home during the months before she died, I got to know many of the other patients. Because I was a regular, none of the staff minded me talking to other patients. I could jump in to help move a woman who was being washed. I learned how to help change a catheter tube. I would talk to the women who wandered the halls.

But in an emergency room, every bed has curtains around it. I could talk to the woman in the next bed, but I could hardly pitch in and start helping. My palms were tingling, but I could not go over and start doing reiki on someone when I didn't know what she was being treated for. Standing by and just watching all that pain and loneliness was difficult for a caretaker like me. Because I have a big support system of family and friends, it is hard for me to imagine what it must feel like to be alone like that.

I tried to get a little sleep by getting into my usual hospital position: sitting in the stiff hospital chair, leaning my head against the bed, and letting my hair shield me from the light. My hair smelled like campfire smoke (I never did get that shower), and that was comforting. My husband, in his drugged state, was sort of rambling about stuff. He kept saying to me, "You are good at this. You know how to take care of sick people."

And I guess, thinking about it, that he is right. I get angry at myself sometimes for being such a caretaker, but it's also one of my strengths. It's not such a bad way to be. I don't always remember that.

20 comments:

Songbird said...

jo(e), there is blessing in your tingling hands.

Rana said...

No, it is not a bad way to be.

But it can be a tiring way to be. Don't forget to take care of yourself, too.

{{{jo(e)}}}

Now, go get some sleep.

Suzie Petunia said...

It is a blessing to the world that there are people like you out there.

negativecapability said...

This post brings back my own late-night emergency room days. Also thoughts of why I really should think of going back to medical school one of these days. I miss the caretaker part.

joanna said...

Jo(e), you've got a good heart. I wish that the hospital had a better chair for you to sleep in.

jo(e) said...

Thanks for the hug Rana. I did get a whole night's sleep last night -- and I feel much better today.

KathyR said...

How's the spouse?

RussianViolets said...

Dear Jo(e), I caretake, too, and I beat myself up for it. Your post is a great reminder that being a caretaker does not imply weakness. I hope that things are improving for you and Spouse. Hugs your way.

Mona Buonanotte said...

Very lucky you were home when the kidney stone attack happened, versus being in a tent or out in the woods. I hope he's feeling much better.

jo(e) said...

Mona: Yeah, I am glad that we were home when it happened. And I realize how lucky we are to have health insurance and such; I grew up in a family without health insurance and I can remember any illness being a major financial crisis.

Spouse is feeling much better. He is even off the pain medication today. And I was just getting used to the drugged husband! (I have never seen my husband drunk or stoned -- he is pretty cleancut -- so being around him when he was all drugged out was a whole new experience for me.)

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Jo(e): Being a caretaker is an excellent way to be. But you have to take care of yourself too. You know that, but with all character traits, it helps to be reminded often.

The world needs a lot more people like you.

Also: dare I bring up the gender issue? Too much caretaking falls on women's shoulder's. My mother (who herself had only boys) always says that you must cultivate good relationships with your daughters in law, because they will pick out your nursing home. I always assure her that I will be there for her when she is old. She then promises not to be a burden, and turns around and talks to my wife for three hours on the phone.

jo(e) said...

Rob: You are so right about the gender roles. In the community I live in, most of the caretaking does fall to the women.

When my father-in-law was dying, my husband had no clue what to say or how to act in the hospital. I had to model that behavior for him because it is not something he learned growing up. Boys of that generation were not taught how to be nurturing. I see some improvement with my kids' generation.

I do need to be reminded from time to time to take care of myself. Often I have to actually leave my community -- going off camping or to the monastery -- to do that.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Ack! I used the apostrophe to make a plural. [Hangs head in shame.]

Psycho Kitty said...

Thinking of you both, Jo(e).

Phantom Scribbler said...

More hugs to you, jo(e)! I hope spouse is better soon.

Friday Mom said...

I'm a caretaker too; in fact I'm making a living at it. I like being comfortable in a hospital and capable of being the sort of non-anxious presence that helps calm family and friends who are freaked about the newness of being there. What I don't like about the role is the stupid ways in which I let myself get talked into taking much responsibility for someone else's care, or when I let myself get focused on caring for someone else because it's infinitely more easy to do than take care of my own crap.

jo(e) said...

when I let myself get focused on caring for someone else because it's infinitely more easy to do than take care of my own crap

Friday Mom, I knew we had a lot in common.

Mr. Sniffly said...

or when I let myself get focused on caring for someone else because it's infinitely more easy to do than take care of my own crap.

I do this... less than I used to at least, but still probably too much for my own good. It's one of the reasons I limit my professional life to fixing machines, not people.

Jo(e) I hope Spouse is doing better!

liz said...

Hugs to you and the spouse.

BrightStar said...

This post is beautiful. I love the idea of re-seeing something in yourself as a gift rather than something problematic.