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Celebrate humanity during National Nurses Week

It’s National Nurses Week. Let’s celebrate nursing. Two stories about nurses.

• In November, 1969, I was en route back to Marshall, Texas, eastbound on Interstate 20, having just called in my basketball game story to the sports desk of the News-Messenger. (For the youngsters out there, this was before laptops and wireless Internet connections — I had to use something called a “pay phone” and dictate/write the story on the fly while talking to “rewrite” on the other end.) It was about 10 p.m.

The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” was in the eight-track tape deck under the dash of my first car, a 1964 Plymouth Valiant which, given its shape and color, resembled an Idaho potato. I first noticed the single headlight coming right at me after making a curve. Moments later, as the car came into sight, there was no avoiding it— we collided virtually head-on. My car rolled over and over onto the grassy median before settling upright. I was in the back seat, dazed and bleeding. (First things first: I checked to see if my new contact lenses were in place and the condition of the new sweater I had purchased that afternoon at Bradbury’s. Just a hint of the vanity to come as an adult.)

To my benefit, the local cops were chasing these two guys who had hit me. They were drunk, had robbed a liquor store nearby and were skedaddling toward me on the wrong side of the interstate highway.
I went into shock and was bleeding out when a nurse, Nancy Hildebrand of Shreveport, La., came onto the wreck scene and recognized what to do immediately. She stopped the bleeding and accompanied me in the ambulance to the hospital in Marshall providing comfort and assurances. After I recovered, we kept in touch for many years until she passed away about 14 years ago.

• Last year, we visited with “my” cancer ward nurse, Corrine Vaunier. It was the first time we had connected in nine years, since I had received treatment and a stem cell transplant at the Fred Hutchinson/Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. We were in Seattle for five months in 2003 to prep for the transplant and the day I checked in, she greeted me with a cheery, we’re-going-to-get-you-well smile. It was the day after my 51st birthday; I had gone through five months of rugged chemotherapy and blood transfusions. I was fat, bloated, endlessly nauseated and worst of all, almost completely bereft of spirit. I didn’t quite buy into her first-day optimism. Corinne was my nurse for 33 of those 38 days, doing everything from changing the bed sheets to administering chemotherapy. She was my advocate when all the top docs and interns rolled through in the morning. My transplant was a clinical trial; I was number nine out of 20.

Weekends were always the hardest after Ryann and Susan left to return to a small apartment we had rented nearby. One particular Saturday afternoon after they had departed and the grim, cold November Seattle rain began to permeate everything, I lost it. I just had had enough. It had been almost a year since diagnosis, the chemo and the prognosis had become increasingly difficult to bear. Corinne came in and noticed my condition, read my face and sat alongside me on the bed. She put her right arm around me and pulled me into her and we sat there, together, looking outside the window. The gesture lasted about a minute. That simple gesture of humanity was as curative as all the IV drugs I was attached to. Her touch and kind words helped me regain a sense of self. I felt better almost instantly and got through the weekend. The transplant was two weeks later. We went home in time for Thanksgiving. I’ve been cancer-free since.

Quite likely, this depth of compassion by nurses to their patients is rote. During our visit in Seattle last year, we toasted to good health and enjoyed much laughter. That lunch, like her nursing in 2003, was profoundly cathartic.

If you want to see humanity up close, talk to a nurse this week.

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