Anne Marie Kearing ’14Posted: January 6, 2014
“Hi there, sweetheart,” the patient said in a soft, raspy, whisper of a voice, as I entered the room cautiously. She sat upright in bed, her thin hands with long fingers folded delicately in her lap. “I know they say my name’s William, but I like to be called Jane,” she offered. I nodded nervously, clutching a list of very intimate questions in my perspiring hands.
“Hi Jane, it’s nice to meet you,” I said. I introduced myself as a student nurse and inquired if I could ask her some questions. My assigned patient had been discharged early in the morning. In a rush to help me complete the interview requirement for my care plan, my preceptor had sent me in to see Jane without allowing me so much as a glance at her chart.
“She’s HIV positive, has been for twenty-five years. Oh, and she’s a man. But she wants to be a woman—goes by Jane, she’ll really like you if you call her Jane.” My preceptor had briefed me outside the patient’s room and hurried off to help another student give meds. Now I sat, feeling the full effect of my lack of nursing experience as I faced Jane, unsure of what to say. She appeared about forty-five, sitting tall with a regal posture, her dark skin and shriveled body clearly tormented by HIV over the past few decades. There were so many questions that begged asking, for the purposes of both completing the interview and satisfying my growing curiosities, but they were all very private questions I felt I simply didn’t have the right to ask.
“So, um, why don’t you just tell me a little bit about yourself,” I started. I looked at the list in my hands. It was littered with questions I wouldn’t dare ask my family or closest friends. Where I come from, we don’t speak about such things. My upbringing in a small and safe New England town that is full of gossip, where there is strength in holding in all your hurt and secrets, had not prepared me for the story I was about to hear.
Jane began to talk, offering little glimpses of her life. I began with seemingly unobtrusive topics. I asked about her relatives. She told me stories of her family—how her parents had died of substance abuse, how her siblings had met similar fates at the hands of addiction or infections, and how her remaining brothers had disowned her because they disapproved of her lifestyle and were embarrassed of her disease.
As she opened up more and more, I began to ask about her illness and how she contracted the virus.
“Ya’ know, I can’t tell when I gots it. But it was a long, long time ago. I just got sick. I dropped out of high school ‘cause I was doin’ drugs. Heroin an’ then crack, I was always usin’. I started sellin’ myself to pay for it. An’ I always liked pleasin’ men and I liked dressin’ up real pretty like a girl to do it. I was just walkin’ the streets. I don’t know if the AIDS came from the needles or from the prostitutin’, but it got me.” She paused. I exhaled. Her sharing the plain and honest truth with me had broken the tension in the room. We went on to discuss her apartment and finances, her sexuality and relationships, her long history of sexual and physical abuse, her struggles with drug addiction, and her chronic loneliness. The tragedies of her life continued to shock me and I felt myself hurting in the deepest depths of my soul. I came to the last question on my list, now irreparably crumpled by my nervous hand-wringing.
“What hopes and plans do you have for the future?” I immediately wanted to swallow my words. This person in front of me was frail and dying of AIDS. What a blatantly insensitive question to ask someone who may not live much longer. And then I realized that my fear and avoidance of the topic was much greater than hers.
“Well, I know I ain’t done a whole lot a’ good in this world,” she said, “but I hope that when I go, I go home to meet my Lord. I hope and pray He’s forgiven me for the wrong I done. An’ if He takes me soon, I’ll be ready,” she answered, “but, if He blesses me here on earth, I hope I won’t be lonely for the rest of my life. I don’t need a lover, I just need a partner in this world—someone to share the rest of my days with.” And in this moment, I found that despite the class, race, sexuality, gender, religion, education level, disease state, and seemingly endless number of issues that separated Jane’s life from my own—and even though my limited experiences and the safety and naivety of my sheltered life had caused me to comprehend only on a very superficial level the extent of her pain and suffering—our hopes and dreams were exactly the same. I said a silent prayer that God might grant her this request and put an end to her sorrow.
When I had ended the conversation, I stood up to leave the room. I promised to be back with my preceptor to do a physical exam and thanked her for her time and her openness. I put my hand on the door knob and she answered, “Honey, I want to thank you, too. It’s been a long time since I spoke these words out loud. I ain’t had someone to tell this to in a long time. I been holdin’ it all in and it helps to have someone listen.”
As I closed the door, I said a second prayer: a thank you to God for the opportunity to meet Jane, who had proven herself an unparalleled teacher. I knew now that a good nurse must always listen with an open heart and an open mind. She had taught me that in order to care for a patient, one may need to gather the courage to reach across a great social schism to feel the pain and suffering of another human being. But most importantly, she had shown me that the things that bind us are stronger than those that divide.
Anne Marie Kearing graduated from Villanova University in 2011 with a degree in biology before coming to Yale as a GEPN. She is currently studying to be a Family Nurse Practitioner and hopes to graduate in 2014.