When I was a nursing student, back in the late '60s, Principles and Practices of Nursing was held in a dim classroom on the first floor of our nurses' residence. There the freshman students would sit in the old, theater-style tiers, intent on the instructions of Sister Thecla.
Sister Thecla was tall, thin, and slightly stooped. We "girls" were only 18, and thought she was old. But now it occurs to me that her posture probably reflected humility—or perhaps the discomfort of shyness—more than it did her age. Her voice quavered a bit, like that of a maiden great-aunt. Her face wore an expression of continual, mild concern. She wasn't one of those nuns whose gaze you feared. Sister Thecla's pale eyes were often looking away, or down at her spotless shoes.
Sister Thecla taught us that nursing was "an art and a science." She taught us the proper order of the full bed bath, the modesties of the "local bath," the imperatives of the back rub, and the refinements of the drawsheet, the emesis basin, and the ordinary washcloth. She demonstrated that the art and science of nursing required all the scrupulous attentions to detail of a priest celebrating High Mass.
At the center of Sister Thecla's demonstrations was an old manikin that lived all its days on the hospital bed at the front of the classroom. I can still see its chipped, painted face—the trust in the eyes, the unreadable thin lips. I can see Sister Thecla turning that manikin on its side, taking care so the blanket wouldn't slip and expose any imagined privates. And Sister Thecla's hands—how they were all tenderness, and how somehow, right before our eyes, they transubstantiated the cotton backside of that manikin into the feverish, aching flesh of a real sick person.
The other night, Sister Thecla visited me in a dream. I hadn't thought of her in years, and yet there she was. I don't know how to describe the power of this dream, except to say that I can't seem to let it go.
Right before this dream, I'd been admitted to the hospital, by way of the ED, after a bout of chest pain that radiated up into my throat. The pain had come out of the blue, so of course it was a scare. But by the time I'd scooted myself from the gurney and into a bed on the unit—where they'd watch over me until the stress test in the morning—the pain was gone, and the blood work had come back negative.
The nurse was kind and efficient. After she'd gone over me thoroughly, she wrote her beeper and cell phone numbers on the board at the foot of my bed. She encouraged me to call any time. "For anything at all," she said, smiling. "Really, anything." And then she was gone.
I wasn't afraid. And except for the unwieldiness of being attached to a monitor and iv tubing, I wasn't uncomfortable. Though I'd been cautioned not to eat or drink, in truth I wasn't even hungry. The room was semiprivate, but the other bed was empty. It was the end of the evening shift.
A friendly nursing assistant came to take my vital signs. When I almost made the mistake of saying that the unit seemed quiet, she shushed me: "No, no, don't say that word." I laughed and told her I was a nurse myself and understood all about jinxes. I settled down then under the extra bath blankets she'd brought me. She turned out the lights.
I wasn't afraid, and yet, suddenly and inexplicably, I felt as though my heart had been broken. I felt abandoned, by whom I couldn't say. The tears ran down my face into the stiff pillowcase. I had such a lump in my throat—real pressure—that I was afraid something would show on the monitor.
This is nonsense, I told myself. Get to sleep.
Somehow I did.
And then she came to me: Sister Thecla, carrying her old porcelain basin, the linens, the lotions and powder. She turned me on my side, her arms stronger than I'd ever imagined they'd be. Her hands moved slowly down the length of my spine, kneading in tenderness. It isn't nonsense, she said, leaning close. You know that. She made a gentle sound, a grandmotherly tsk, tsk close to my ear.
Oh my, she said close to my ear, in that quavering voice from long ago. Whatever happened to PM care?