The Best Nurse I Ever Had

posted in: Day In The Life 15
I found this picture of “Nurse Yamy” in the Wiki file under “Nursing.” I think she looks really nice, too. Photo: Wikipedia.


I didn’t say why I came to Portland and I can’t just yet. Soon, though, and with great enthusiasm, I shall tell you why I came out west and what happened while I was here.

What I can tell you that I’m not scouting for places to live (heavens!); I haven’t fallen in love with a Portlandian (noo!); and I didn’t have a gig or event to do while I was here. Thankfully, I did not come expressly to relive this glorious moment in the Portland International Airport where I slipped and fell and launched wine and pizza three feet into the air. That was cool.

And though I did not come for medical attention of any kind (phew), I did meet a nurse this weekend. The wife of a business colleague of mine, my new friend was a gracious host, a terrific cook, and generally just nice to be around, so when I found out she was a nurse in a delivery ward, I was like, “Well, that is exactly right and everything in the world is as it should be.”

The three of us had some time in the car together and at one point the conversation turned to illness and medical histories. My business associate had never really heard my story and it was as good a time as any to share the whole dealio. I often struggle not to cry at a few key moments of my tale (e.g., when I woke up from the first surgery screaming; when I learned my first ileostomy takedown had failed and that I had to get a second stoma, etc.), but I did all right.

The only time I wavered was when I told the story of the Best Nurse I Ever Had and what she said to me that changed my life forever. At least, it changed the way I saw myself in the story of my chronic illness and the hardest time of my life so far.

Warning: This story involves super gross details. The squeamish should proceed with great caution.

My first surgery as a result of advanced Ulcerative Colitis was at Mayo Clinic in Rochester in October of 2008. The surgeons took out my entire colon (and some other stuff) and fashioned me with an ileostomy. But the surgery was a disaster. (Check those two links up top for the deets, if you dare.) One of the many v. bad things that happened was that my belly swelled up as a result of all the abscesses, which caused a separation between my stoma and the skin that it was supposed to be flush up against it.

This meant I had a moat around the piece of the small intestine that was coming out of my body. What was in the moat? Why, fecal matter, bile, and pus, of course. And blood. And infection. And just … It was awful. The goop had to be cleaned out with a big, long swab and then packed.

As one can imagine, this process was one I did not look forward to and it happened about every other day. (I was in the hospital for a month following that first surgery.)

When the Best Nurse I Ever Had would come in to my room for the cleaning/packing, I would clutch my stuffed horse, Thunderbolt, look at the picture of Jesus on the wall, and keen softly to myself and weep and shudder and pray, pray, pray it would be over soon. Every fiber of my wrecked, emaciated body would be, ever-so-briefly, pure iron. That’s how tense I was, how frightened. She was poking. A swab. Into my body. She was cleaning. Pus. From my belly. My guts. Were outside. My core.

Not great.

One day, the Best Nurse I Ever Had approached me for the procedure, saw me ready to retreat into like, total fear and my mental fetal position and stopped.

“Mary,” she said, “Would you like me to show you how to do this yourself?”

I whipped my head over to look at her. “You’re kidding me, right?” I was already hyperventilating in anticipation of the procedure.

She shook her head. “See, I think you think this is worse than it is. You’ve got it in your mind that it’s really bad. And it’s not good. But it’s not as bad as you think. I think if you do it, you’ll see that for yourself and it won’t be so awful. Would you like to try?”

I burst into tears. “No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “Just do it. Please, please just do it and leave me alone, please.” I wasn’t mean to her but I didn’t have anything to give in the way of kindness. She was giving enough for both of us and I had to let her.

She patted my arm and did the thing. Over the next two days, I thought about what she said. When people say things that are true, there’s a finality to it. There’s nothing you can do, no escape. Not unless you go into denial; not unless you put a ton of effort into belligerence, intolerance.

When she came in the next time, I squeaked out that I couldn’t do it, myself, but that I’d help. Just help her, a little, maybe hold the swab or something.

“Hey!” she said, smiling. “That’s the spirit! That’s great. Okay, let me get out all the stuff.”

When I poked the swab into the separation, I realized that the moat wasn’t bottomless. It had a bottom. The poking didn’t hurt, either, not really; it just felt weird. Because I hadn’t actually looked at it until that point (too scared), I hadn’t seen that it was really healing pretty well on the righthand side. The Best Nurse I Ever Had tore off little pieces of the wound-packing gauze (“It turns to gel!” she said), and I gingerly poked them into the moat. I probably held my breath the whole time.

When we were done and my ostomy bag was snapped back onto my belly, I let out a little laugh and said, “I guess this kind of stuff builds character, right?”

The Best Nurse I Ever Had smiled at me.

“No, honey. I think this kind of stuff reveals character you already had.”

So, that happened. And now I’m super-crying at the Portland International Airport, so I’d better go get some pizza to fling into the air. Thank you, Best Nurse I Ever Had, and thank you, all nurses everywhere.

15 Responses

  1. Carol
    | Reply

    You always make me cry or smile. You make me feel. Such a good thing.❤️❤️❤️

  2. Gwen DeSeure
    | Reply

    Dear God Mary! I had wondered why you had “disappeared” on us and your mother. Now you’ve shared such a gruesome & poignant reason. Im so sorry for this devastating experience upon you! You always appeared “the picture of health”. We just never know what other are dealing w/in their lives and this is why Ive adapted the thought (blessed from God), to treat others feelings as gently as your own. I pray for God’s blessings & grace be upon you each day.

  3. Diana
    | Reply

    I’m in Portland if you need a tour guide or a ride! Or a drinking companion… 🙂

  4. Susan Davies
    | Reply

    How is your health now? I️ haven’t read anything about it lately.

  5. Francine
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this trying time with us. We care about you more than you can possibly know. How is it someone that you haven’t met but entered our life through the tv , books, etc. Mean so much? It seems odd but normal at the same time. Anyway, years ago when my dad was alive and no one in the family was ill, he would say ” you have your health, you have the whole world!” In my head I would say”oh stop, no one is sick” and just dismiss him. As I’ve gotten older and have seen sickness in the family and myself, I find his words so true. I hope that you are finally on the mend and hope you take care and love yourself.

  6. Colleen
    | Reply

    Thanks Mary, I am a retired nurse.

  7. Julie Freyberg
    | Reply

    I am extremely touched by your story! I have known you only as a quilter, and have admired your writing and quilting talent. But….in my real job-I’m a nurse. A WOC nurse who knows exactly what this experience was like for you from the nurse’s perspective. I have cared for patients like you many times—and can only aspire to be “the best nurse” for them, too. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Paula White
    | Reply

    This means so much to read this. I work as a nurse. I pray for your continued health and recovery.

  9. Rosemary
    | Reply

    I am so sorry that you have had to go through such things in your life…but I surely am glad that you are here to tell the story. Both my mother (surgical nurse) and sister (emergency nurse), were there for others and I thought they were so noble doing so. I think you are very strong and I admire you….for many reasons. Please know that you are held in prayers. Hugs.

  10. Melanie
    | Reply

    Great story. I had chemo for months and grew very close to my oncology nurses. When my treatment was finished I had a very hard time knowing that I wasn’t going to see those women in a regular basis. Their care and humanity actually made me look forward to going in for my infusions. Can’t ask for more than that when you’re deathly I’ll.

    • Maggie
      | Reply

      I have always loved watching you, but now, you are my hero!

  11. Kathryn Darnell
    | Reply

    Lord, bless this sweet and generous woman as she inspires all who come across her path. And those rocks in her path, we’ll God just turn them to fine sand.

  12. Nurseli
    | Reply

    I’m a nurse too, but the baby kind. Thanks for sharing your story. You are incredibly brave!

  13. Pat Hicks
    | Reply

    Mary you are amazing. Your Grace and strength are beyond measure.
    Paper Girl makes me feel like part of your extended family.

  14. Vickie
    | Reply

    Thank you Mary. Crying now. My mom was a nurse and this kindness showed to you reminded me so much of her. Prayers for your good health and success.

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