Portrait #1: The Setting

I want to write, finally, about what I do, when I am Doing Something.  When I am working.  My friend, Lorie, gave me a small “Decomposition book” to begin what she calls “portraits” of my people, the people I work with and who, with great graciousness, work with me.  The word itself, “portraits” helps make the endeavor less intimidating, more discreet.  A portrait: a picture within a frame — not a book, not an essay.  Only what I see before me, nothing more.

It’s Friday, four days after Christmas,. The hospital census is low, and two of my four floors are closed. This has never happened before in my 5-year experience. Some med-surg floors are closed too, 5 and 8, I think. In the administrative huddle this morning, the hospital ceo seemed genuinely stressed, rubbing the top of his head as he discussed the possibility of further cost-cutting measures.

We have just been bought out (again) by a more financially-stable hospital group.  It is one that appears to value their spiritual care department judging by their website at least.  But I think we, like everyone else, still feel vulnerable.  When the dust settles, will we be cut or “down-sized” or re-organized or whatever euphemism will be used to balance a budget that inherently counts spiritual care as non-essential?  My professional future is at least as unpredictable as my health future. Maybe I should be getting used to this.

I like holidays and weekends and other out-of-the-ordinary times in the hospital. I can feel the hospital slow down at these times, as if it were a living organism, slowing to a walk from its usual run. There is just a little more room for greetings, gossip, catching up with people and letting my groups run over-time as people need, instead of as institutional schedules determine.

Oddly enough, it’s an at-home feeling.  As if I were moving around these clean, linoleum floors in my slippers and sitting down with people over a cup of coffee (as there is no caffeine on my floors, this is only a sweet dream).  As if we were gathered around a table in some large institutional kitchen – but gathered together all the same -12 floors above quieter city streets.  We, patients and staff, are also are on holiday.  This binds us with the outside world. We celebrate the holiday by being more casual, more relaxed.

At one point in my music group, as we listen to a recording of Tamela Mann singing, “Take Me to the King,”  Misty, a nurse on-loan from one of the closed floors, walks in and, unexpectedly, starts singing along.  She belts it out with Tamela, swaying as she sings, and then throws open her arms as if to embrace us all,

            “Take me to the King, I don’t have much to bring …Truth is, I’m tired, Options are few,

I’m trying to pray, But where are you?”

                          “But still my soul, Refuses to die,                                                  One touch-will change-my life”

We are looking at her as if she were a diva, come to us as someone’s unlikely idea of a holiday gift for the hospital’s psych floors. When the song finishes, she says, “Oh! I love that song!” We, patients and staff,  look at each other as if to say, “Did you see that, too?”

To bring us back to reality, Louise, to my right says in her most disgusted voice, “Pain pill!”  Silence. “I said I want a pain pill, is anyone listening to me? How many times do I have to say it?”

Instinctively I reach out to her and put my hand on her arm, her back is exposed beneath the worn hospital gown.  She is not mollified and raises her voice, “I said I want a pain pill, a pain pill. I get them three times a day. Where the hell is my nurse?”

“Who is your nurse?” I ask.

“I don’t know.  How should I know?” Behind her, out of her sight, Misty, points to herself and silently mouths, I am.

“I’ll get your nurse, ” I say.

Behind her, Misty says, “She’s bringing it now.”

“Hmmph,” says Louise, “It’s taking long enough.”  Then, after a long pause, “I’m not always this crabby, I just need my pain pill.”

“So lord speak right now,  Let it fall like rain”

Welcome to my world:  the sacred and the profane sitting down next to each other and not-having a cup of coffee together for the holiday.

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