One summer, after my freshman year in college, I worked as an orderly at the Bethesda Hospital in Chicago. Not through any fault of my own, the hospital closed many years later, sat empty for half a dozen more, and now sports a new entrance and balconies in its reincarnation as an upscale condominium. I wonder if Sarah Goldstein and Max Natkin, from my orderly days, still wander the halls.
Bethesda Hospital was not a “teaching hospital.” In a teaching hospital, interns and student nurses do most of the medical support and the orderlies get to wheel people to and from x-ray or physical therapy and do the heavy lifting.
At Bethesda, I worked with a full range of patients who had minor ailments, minor and major surgeries, and at times life ending diseases. If I was willing to learn, I could give many types of patient support which orderlies usually can not.
After sitting through “report” at the beginning of each shift, I was assigned three to five patients as my main responsibility for the day. I would make sure they get through breakfast, give them a sponge bath if necessary, change the bed, take their temperature and blood pressure every several hours, document their day in their chart, as well as what ever else might be needed based on the nature of their stay in the hospital.
Over time, I was able to take on more advanced responsibilities from the doctors and nurses as long as I was willing to learn. I would assist the doctors in changing surgery dressings and after a few days, depending on the nature of the surgery, change the dressing by myself.
I would prep (or shave) the area of the patient’s surgery, prepare their bed while they were in the operating room, and monitor their life signs and progress when they returned from surgery.
A number of times I catheterized male patients which included inserting a tube through the penis into the bladder to facilitate urination. I would then measure and empty the urine to make sure not too much was draining too quickly or not enough too slowly.
I would clean bed sores and roll and shift the patient to help avoid them getting more. I would make sure patients were as comfortable as possible as they were dying. These are just a few types of support I was trained to give.
The work was difficult, exhausting, and at times depressing but also fulfilling and rewarding. One of my own approaches to nursing care was to “declare” a Patient of the Day. There would always be someone who seemed to need more attention, to be more lonely, to have less family to visit, to be more in pain. After my scheduled responsibilities were taken care of, even if the person was not on my case load that day, I would make sure to spend time with my Patient of the Day.
We would talk, I would read aloud, they would dictate letters for me to write, I would just sit next to their bed and hold their hand. Sometimes the Patient of the Day would turn into a Patient of the Week. I would get to know more about them and what their life was like before they came to the hospital and they would begin to look forward to my daily visits.
After returning to work from a long weekend off and before beginning my shift, I stopped by Sarah Goldstein’s room to say a fast hello. The room was empty. The bed was stripped. All was quiet. In the air there was no rhythmic moaning with each breath. The suffering and pain were gone. There was no hand to hold.
Mrs. Goldstein had died during the night. I had not anticipated this, although I knew she was very ill. I had not said good-bye. This was the beginning of my young, first dealings with death.
Another Patient of the Week was Mr. Max Natkin. I do not remember the nature of his illness but do remember a very old, thin, frail, sunken cheeked man. I imagine he must have been active, involved, and vibrant at one time in his life but that was no longer visible. What was visible was a smile, a kind word for others, a friendly disposition, the resignation in his face of death and of having lived a full loving life.
Mr. Natkin died on my shift. As he had laid in bed in life, he seemed to do the same in death. What was different I wondered as I looked at his still body. After his family had said their good byes and departed it was a nurse’s and my responsibility to move the body to the morgue.
Both of us stood at the side of his bed for a moment, each probably saying our own private good byes. Again I wondered what was it about Mr. Natkin now, that just an hour or so ago was different? What made a person alive one moment and dead the next? What had changed? What had happened? Where was Mr. Natkin?
This was the first time I had experienced a situation like this, the first time I had been with a dead person, and the first time in my life that I had begun to ask myself these questions. I vowed to always remember that experience and always to remember Mr. Natkin’s name.
Mr. Max Natkin and Mrs. Sarah Goldstein. Saying their names out loud keeps them alive, at least in my mind and in my heart.