All was quiet in the eight-bed children’s ward at Maryland General Hospital in Baltimore. The children were asleep. A lone nurse sat bent over her small wooden desk, working silently, her face illuminated by a goose neck lamp. I watched her from my bed, second from the door. Shifting my legs, I knocked my glasses off of the rolling table near my feet. She turned at the sound, rose, and approached my bed. I could hear the rustle of her starched uniform apron.
“Still awake?” she whispered, handing me the glasses. I nodded and spoke. “What are you doing at your desk? You look busy.”
She smiled, placed a finger to her lips and slipped away to walk the length of the ward, checking on the other patients, all of them younger than my 13 years. She returned, pushing a wooden wheelchair, and motioned to me to get in the chair and follow her back to her little desk.
A handful of pencils in a variety of colors lay there, near a 5 by 7 black and white matte finish photo of a smiling older couple. “My parents,” she said, reaching up to adjust her glasses. “I’m coloring this to give them for their anniversary.” I could see that she already had transformed her mother’s suit to a pale blue.
We sat side by side silently as she worked for about an hour, then she sent me back to bed, where I fell asleep quickly.
This pleasant encounter remains in my memory in sharp detail. In the seven decades since, many other nurses have entered my life, invariably in a caring, compassionate way. I appreciate them so much. Nurses are my heroes. That we honor them now in National Nurses Week is highly appropriate, especially at this difficult time.
Nursing is part of my family. My Aunt Ina, my father’s sister, was a nurse in Washington, D.C. She laughed a lot and was a great hugger. My cousin Elsie was a nurse at Stamford General Hospital in Connecticut. Her patients included Ezio Pinza, star of opera and Broadway. Both of these wonderful women have passed on.
We all need nurses at some point in our lives. These days, when I meet a new one, I frequently ask him or her what motivated them to choose nursing as a career. Invariably, they express their strong desire to care for others. Nurses are said to operate with six “C” core values: Care, Compassion, Competence, Communication, Courage, and Commitment.
In the movie “Wit,” Emma Thompson plays a brilliant professor of English literature who is hospitalized, dying of ovarian cancer. One reviewer notes that the only person in the film who seems to care for her is a nurse, played by Audra McDonald.
For several years, I have struggled off and on to work on a novel, a piece of fiction whose central character is a nurse. From the first page on, she is confronted with daunting challenges, and I don’t yet know how she will cope with them all, but of this I am certain: She will prevail. She is a nurse.