Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Standing in the Shadows

“Where are the nurses?” was the question that came from the back of the room after I finished my talk. It was the end of the first launch of my book What I Learned from Cancer and after telling stories and reading selected passages from my book, I asked the audience for questions.

I was unprepared for that question and so it caused me pause. And it got me thinking about the other heroes in my story, the unseen heroes.

When I advertise talks about my cancer journey I speak of “heroes and villains in the unlikeliest of places.” And most, but not all, of the heroes are doctors. Understandably, the doctor looms large in any medical story. There they stand in the centre of things, high on a pedestal from where they can see everything and from where everyone can see them: a lot like the statue of Jesus overlooking Rio de Janeiro, they survey the territory of patient health. I think that view of doctors is what gets them, and us, in so much trouble. It can foster an arrogant “I know what is best” attitude and, when medical or relational decisions turn out poorly, it can also create a great place for the rest of us to see their failure.

And so, having finished telling my story she raised her hand and from the back of the room asked about the people who must have been there but went unmentioned in my narrative: “Where are the nurses in your story?”

Nurses are like sound men at rock concerts: there they are to ensure that all goes smoothly, there they are to ensure that the “stars” get their message out, there they are making the performers look good. But you never see them and despite being indispensable they go largely unnoticed. It is not until the feedback begins or the vocals are not loud enough or the guitar solo makes your ears bleed that you look back into the shadows and ask “What is that guy doing back there?”

But when I was in pain in the middle of the night, it was not a doctor who came to my side. When I vomited black bile all over myself and my bedding, it was not a doctor who came to clean me up. And when I lay in my own waste, on more than one occasion, because I could not get to the toilet in time, once again, it was not a doctor who cleaned me up. It was a nurse who, without a word of complaint, changed my bedding, wiped my back side, and put me into my bed, only to be called to return 10 minutes later to repeat the process again.

They took my vital signs, gave me drugs, changed my IV, calmed my nerves, heard me cry (in despair and pain), and came running whenever I pressed that magic button beside my bed. They encouraged me in the middle of the night, and pushed me just hard enough to know that I really could do that thing I needed to do to speed my recovery. These were my nurses.

I know nurses. I’d love to be able to describe them stereotypically as the angels who come to your bedside. But I can’t, mostly because at least half of the nurses I know are guys, and none of them are angels. And I am not sure that the metaphor of the angel fits. Instead, I see them as servants. And, lest you get the wrong impression, I am not talking about slaves, I am talking about those who choose a life of helping, who choose to place others before themselves, who choose to be the ones to whom very little credit is given. These are the ones who, in their humility, make our medical system function.

To all the nurses I know, to all who have served me though my illnesses, to all who appear out of the shadows and disappear into those same shadows when the healing is done, I offer my thanks. And know that we, your patients, appreciate you and what you do far more profoundly and deeply than we can ever express.

Dennis Maione is an author, speaker, and teacher from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He has been on a 20+ year journey through 2 bouts with colo-rectal cancer, in large part due to the presence of a Lynch Syndrome mutation in his genes. He speaks and writes about his cancer journey, his insights into the medical system, and finding heroes and villains in the unlikeliest of places.

His latest book, What I Learned from Cancer, is available in electronic form at his payhip.com site: http://bit.ly/wilfc-ebook. Physical copies of the book are available at the Prompters to Life web store, where shipping on copies of the soft cover edition is always free (except to the international space station). To order a paper copy of the book visit: http://prompterstolife.com/shoppers

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