Taylor Deasy ’14Posted: August 1, 2013
Melvin began as a knot in my stomach. A knot that had twisted itself into a tangled mess as I drove to clinical that Saturday morning. Twelve hours, I thought. Twelve hours caring for a blind and almost completely deaf “combative ex-marine” with notes that described him as “difficult”, “sour”, and at times “violent”; he was condemned in my mind before I even reached the highway. I must preface what I share with you next by saying that never in my life have I truly been able to substantiate the expression, however trite and worn-out it may be, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”, or in my case, “don’t judge a man by his medical chart”, until the day I met Melvin.
He had kept me up most of the night, anxiously awaiting our day together; and as I walked onto the unit that morning, overwhelmed by the vulgarities that echoed from a distant room, I knew that he too, must have had a long night. Receiving report from a nurse delighted to be relieved of Melvin duty, I was reminded once again, that he could be quite difficult. And so I entered his room, bracing myself for the verbal abuse, and perhaps a flying bedpan; but instead had to catch my breath at what lay before me. Those angry screams could not possibly have from this man. For this man was nothing more than an empty shell; the remnants of what once was, but had since been lost, shriveled by time, emaciated by disease, defeated by a cancer that had stolen all but his last breath. His eyes open wide showed no sign of recognition, the milky white glaze from years of cataracts staring off into nothingness. “Hello Mr. S” I stammer, but he does not hear. “Mr. S my name is Taylor” I speak louder, leaning in by his side, and still nothing.
By the fourth try I am yelling my name but two inches from his “good ear”, too flustered to remember that I am supposed to be nervous, and this time, he hears me. “I told you stupid nurses to leave me alone, damnit!” he shouts. Breathing deeply to stifle the flare of my own quick temper, I try again. “Mr. S, my name is Taylor, I am a student nurse, we’ve never met before. I’m sorry that you are upset, but I’m here now and I plan to take good care of, ok? ”. I know he has heard me, I can tell by the way his head tilts, slightly forward with a furrowed brow. I watch his chest sink as he sighs. “Oh”, and I can hear the sorry in his voice, “I thought you was someone else”. “It’s just you and me today Melvin. So we have to be good to each other, okay?” He laughs, allowing a smile to escape his lips. “Oh you’re a sassy one, huh?” He laughs again. “Ok ma’am, you be good to me, and I’ll be good to you”.
We get through breakfast and a bath fairly unscathed. Melvin calls me ma’am, and I do my best to keep him laughing as I shout my way past years of mistrust and resentment. Having been pegged as violent and uncooperative, Melvin has received minimal attention, and it shows; taped into underwear two sizes too big, his gown and linens are soiled with blood spots and urine. And so I work, from head to toe, to set things straight. I use my hands to soothe his body, as he shares words to heal his soul. As he speaks, I can see that Melvin is not angry, he is frightened. Frightened of the nurses who poke and prod without taking the time to explain things first. Frightened of the endless needles, endless pain, and mostly, frightened to die here, in this bed, alone. I cannot mend all that has been broken in this man, but I can give him something he has been denied of for some time. I can give him kindness, and warmth, I can give him patience and time; I can give him all that I have in me today, in hopes that it may help carry him through tomorrow.
Melvin is reliving his time in the marines as I apply lotion to his feet; when the oncologist walks in. “Hello Mr. S”, he says quietly. “He can’t hear you” I say, “you’ve got to lean into his right ear and shout”. He looks at me for a moment before repeating himself, slightly louder, though he makes no attempt to move. This goes on for a minute or so before I go to Melvin’s side to announce his visitor. “Hello Doc”, he chirps. I smile at this small triumph and move back to his feet. The doctor looks uncomfortable, but this time he leans in, doing his best to raise his voice, and tells Melvin the prostate cancer he conquered 16 years ago has returned, and has spread to his bones. Just like that. They will need to run more tests before discussing a treatment plan. He is leaving his card for Melvin to call with questions, as if that is even possible. There is no gentle touch, no offering of someone to talk to, not even so much as a quick squeeze of the hand. He is in and out before I have a chance to process what has happened. We sit in silence for some time until Melvin says “Those docs, they always make it seem like it’s your fault”. I put his socks back on and continue rubbing his feet, not knowing what else to do, “Melvin”, I say, “this is not your fault, I am so sorry”. “I’m starving, where’s my damn sandwich?” is all he replies.
When his nurse rushes in just as lunch has arrived, shouting that she will be placing a new IV line for yet another round of antibiotics; it is no surprise to me that she is met with the hostile man she has come to know. After several tries, she is unable to find a vein in his decrepit arm; having been ridden with so many needles, it is covered in bruises. I watch the frustration mount on her face, listening as she shouts for him to hold still, and I can see that Melvin has had enough. He screams at her to leave him alone, to stop sticking him, to please just let him die in peace. I move to stand by his side, feeling helpless, I offer my hand. To my surprise he accepts, pulling me close to his face, pressing my palm firmly against his cheek, he doesn’t let go. After a moment, I ask if it would be okay for the nurse to try one more time. I see by the way his shoulders slump that the fight is gone and he nods. I offer him the piece of cake from the lunch he has yet to eat, feeding it to him as she fishes around on the other side. “Thank you ma’am”, he says, “this is delicious”.
We don’t have a perfect day, Melvin and I. At 87 years old, his memory is not what it once was, and he is quick to lose his temper. He tells me that I should have been a doctor, that nursing is a waste of time; and frequently exclaims that my hands are too damn cold. But Melvin is also kind. He recovers quickly when angry, and thanks me for the smallest of favors. He talks for many hours, about his time in the marines, his two ex wives, and the many regrets that haunt him as he faces the end of his life. When the grief becomes too much to bare, when he can no longer put his sadness into words, and instead lashes out in anger, I offer my hand so that he is not alone. And I hope that he knows, as I give a good squeeze, willing my thoughts to the tips of my fingers, that I care. That he is kind, and good, and deserves to be at peace; and that most importantly, his memory will not be forgotten. Melvin will be here, to remind me should I ever forget, that there is beauty in the resiliency of the human spirit; and that sometimes all we need to get us through, is that one willing hand to guide the way.