Everyone thinks they have a stressful job, don't they? I certainly think I do. I'm a nurse. And before you all start bleating about what a wimpy girly job and how we have it easy and there's no stress at all, I suggest you try doing my job for a week.
I work in a specialist facility. We rebuild soldiers, usually after they've been blown up or burned. When you've spent your working day painstakingly peeling away yesterday's bandages from the face of a teenager, trying to avoid his skin coming away with the bandage, before spreading a fresh coating of goo all over, despite the poor guy's flinching and moaning because you're hurting him, and then bandaging him up knowing you're going to repeat the whole procedure three days later, you won't be telling me I do a girly job. It's tough, and sometimes gruesome, not a job for the faint-hearted.
I'm proud of what I do and I'm very good at what I do. I've always been interested in the caring professions and I don't waste time analysing it, I just get on with it. Other people can draw conclusions about me if they like, I don't much care. I'm a big hairy masculine man and I'm comfortable in my skin, I don't have to worry what other people think. Some of the guys are built differently, there's one guy, he's a really great nurse, and he's small, skinny, delicate-looking, he looks like if you knocked him over he'd break, but he's as tough as any of us. I really admire him, I imagine if I get teased because of my job it must be much worse for him. But he doesn't let it get to him.
We all have our moments; you'd have to be made of stone not to be affected by what you have to deal with and sometimes it does get to me. Like yesterday for instance.
The patient was a twenty-three year old New Zealander, big, blond and tanned. I noticed he and I were born in the same month, so nearly exactly the same age, but while I was working my way through med school he was out in the desert getting fired on by fanatics. And on his third tour of duty he'd trodden on a mine.
They get issued with blast-resistant underpants – no, really, they do, they're made of Kevlar – and he was wearing his so the groin damage was superficial, but he's lost both his legs below the knee. Yesterday my job was to change the dressings on his stumps. They'd long since healed up after the surgery, but he's been having trouble with blisters and I had to treat the latest batch and dress them.
They all go through this – the skin on the lower surface of the stump is partly leg-skin and partly scar tissue. It's not the same kind of skin as we have on the soles of our feet or the palms of our hands, which is tough and can handle the abrasion. The prosthetics people fit them with sockets custom-made to fit them, but they're putting their whole weight on their stumps and the skin can't take the pressure and abrasion and it gets sore and blistered. Over time it develops callouses and eventually the skin is tough enough for them to get on with their lives but it takes months and the physios work them hard despite the pain. This guy – we'll call him Jim, it's not his real name but patient confidentiality and all that – he's really determined and he pushes himself to the limit and then it's up to us to try and repair the damage.
I had him sitting on the edge of the gurney and I was beginning the process of removing dressings when his legs went into spasm. That's another thing they all get from time to time – the nerves have been damaged, and sometimes these guys complain that their feet hurt which is difficult because they don't have any feet, but they still have the neural paths that served their feet and sometimes those nerves won't calm down. It's pitiful to see these men suffering pain in a body part that isn't even there.
So I was beginning to work on his dressings and his stump suddenly jerked out of my hands. I glanced up and saw his face contorted in pain so it was clear what was happening. I swung him round and lay him down on the gurney and I pulled his shorts off him (he was wearing lycra long-legged running shorts over his underpants) and squirted some KY on my hands and began massaging his thighs. You have to really work the muscles, rubbing deep into the tissue to get the blood flow going. It's a lot like cramp but with an uncontrollable shudder going on too.
Jim is a fit guy. I mean he's really fit, a born athlete. He has thighs that wouldn't be out of place on a rugby player, and powerful tight glutes. His stomach is flat and he has quite a narrow waist but big broad shoulders giving him a classic triangular chest. He's a sight to behold. I, of course, wasn't distracted from my task, I'm a professional. Gradually the spasms faded and I could feel the muscles begin to relax. Jim was all for sitting up again so I could continue working on his dressings but I made him lie there for a bit longer until I was sure he was fully over it. I walked round to his head and rubbed his temples and across his forehead for a couple of minutes. I hope it relaxed him, it certainly relaxed me. I caught myself staring at the line of blond fuzz that started at his navel and disappeared under the waistband of his Calvin Kleins, and I coloured a little. I glanced down to see if he'd noticed I was staring, and found his brilliant blue eyes staring up at me. I had a moment's impulse to giggle as the thought crossed my mind that he could probably see right up my nose, but I pulled myself together and decided now was the time to get back to work on his stumps.
So there we were, him sitting with his stumps dangling over the edge of the gurney, me on my knees in front of him with my latex gloves on, methodically going through the process of the dressing change. Each blister and area of inflammation had to be checked and attended to, medicated and re-dressed. As I worked my mind began to wander and in my imagination I saw what his legs might have looked like before the mine. Long calves, covered in the same blond hair as on his thighs but a little thicker until the ankle where the hair would abruptly stop. Narrow ankles, and shapely feet, with beautiful square toes, toes more used to walking barefoot on sandy beaches than being jammed into city shoes or army boots. I imagined each toe with a little tuft of blond hair on top. Beautiful. My daydream faded and I came back to focus on the job in hand and the mess of sore and blistered skin that Jim was having to walk on.
Now, I've been working here a while, and I've seen it all. Jim's sores aren't the worst I've seen, not by a long shot. But someone once told me this stuff is cumulative. You can deal with so much, but you get to a point when you can't take any more. Maybe I'd got to that point. As I worked my vision began to blur and it took me a moment to work out that my eyes were watering. I swiped across them with my forearm but it didn't help. I tried again, hoping that Jim hadn't noticed, but I felt his hand on my shoulder, and then his fist as it gripped my tunic and pulled me upright. Eye to watery eye, his compassion set me off and my shoulders began to shake. My knees didn't want to hold me up and I was sinking back towards the floor when I was suddenly wrapped in his arms which really set me off and the floodgates opened. I cried. I bawled and sobbed and he held me safe until it was over. It felt wrong, and at the same time very right. I was vaguely aware that I should have been comforting him, not the other way round, but I was so glad of his comfort I couldn't worry about it. It was very unprofessional of me, I should have withdrawn and got one of the other nurses to finish his treatment while I took a teabreak. But I'm not sorry. I will remember the feel of Jim's arms around me for a very long time.
I've reported my breakdown to personnel, and I've been signed off work for a week. I'm wondering if I should look Jim up and ask him if he's free this evening?
© Bruin Fisher February 2013