September 2, 2008

I am a minority in a majority: I am male, and I am a nurse. I am also straight, which according to some views makes me a minority in a minority in a majority. There is also the problem that nurses, as a vast and discrete body of people, are viewed by themselves and others as professionally and socially oppressed – by governments, by doctors, by the media, by the institutions they work for, and by their own persistently poor self-image. Which would, theoretically and despite their numerical advantage over every other group of health care workers, make them, in character at least, a minority.

Which makes me a minority in a minority in a minority. A minority3 as it were.

This might be enough to unman me (though paradoxically, that might help) were it not for Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen is depressing, yes, but to a man in my severely minoritized position he also offers the best source of hope. “The minority,” he famously says, “is always right.” (That he has a doctor say it is merely one of life’s perverse little twists). As a straight male nurse, that makes me right to the power of three. Or right3.

I only wish I knew what it was that I’m so abundantly right about…

Beyond the zero

August 20, 2008

In 20 years working in acute care hospitals, as a porter in England and as a nurse in England and Australia, I’ve seen upwards of 20 human corpses, and been witness to a dozen or so deaths.

I’ve seen bodies with skin so taut and white against the bed linen they looked almost translucent, and others where the blood has pooled in the folds and divided the body into a yellow-grey upper level of face and chest and belly and knees, and a ravaged purple bruise of a lower level, of shoulders and back and buttocks and heels.

I’ve seen bodies barely recognisable as such: an old man hit by a car on the motorway, one leg half out of its socket and with the foot up by his ear, both arms surreally rearticulated, intestines pressing against thinning viscera through a long horizontal gash in his abdomen; a woman whose leg had been run over and pulverised into fresh red mince by an artic cab.

I’ve seen people who, even after looking at them for several minutes, I had trouble convincing myself weren’t merely sleeping.

People have died while holding my hand.

Most of the people who I’ve watched die suffered some kind of intervention in the process – CPR, adrenaline, the elastic of an oxygen mask tangled in their hair – but only as a sort of necessary or expected constituent of where they were, rather than of what they were actually doing. ‘For the world, I count it not an inn, but an hospital; and a place not to live, but to die in,’ wrote Sir Thomas Browne.

I know that what I’ve seen is nothing compared to soldiers, or police officers, or paramedics. But it’s unique to me. I don’t believe in anything beyond the zero. But I believe in the zero.

A cosmological disagreement overheard in a suburban shopping village:

“I just wish I knew why, what, what’s the Universe [capitalisation implied] trying to tell me ? I must be being punished for something.”

“No you’re not. Not by the universe at least.”

“But it is, it must be, there must be a reason for all this, these things.”

“No there musn’t! There isn’t! The universe is just a big cold implacable space that doesn’t give a flying [restrained pause whilst presumably searching for a PG-or-lower-rated alternative to the obvious next word: this was in a suburban shopping village, not a mall, and there were children present] tuppence about you or me or anyone else on this or any other planet. You’re getting religious about all this!”

Shocked silence.

“But it’s nice to believe in something…”

Waiting words

August 15, 2008

Night shift, surgical ward. An expected death. Brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren: all have come to see, to say goodbye, to stare and cry and hold a cold hand or kiss a closed eye. All have gone now, and the corpse is wrapped and we’re waiting for the Tin Box.

“Yes,” says the senior nurse. “Death certainly brings out the best in families.”