I am a nurse on a brain injury unit at a rehabilitation hospital. Our unit's focus is behavioral, cognitive and physical rehabilitation for those with traumatic brain injuries. This is not glamorous or romantic work. Many of our patients are just out of comas. They are confused, sometimes aggressive, cognitively impaired to various degrees and almost always physically impaired due to the brain injury. Much of my work focuses on meeting the physical needs of my patients.
One evening, I was with an elderly woman who had just been incontinent. We were in her bathroom, where, with my assistance, she held onto the wall bars after standing from her wheelchair. My attention was two-fold— keeping her from falling and cleaning her body. I listened to her ramble from one uncompleted thought to the next when I caught the words, toilet nurse. I asked what she meant.
She said, “You are always bringing me in here and cleaning me.” It was pretty lucid and right on, and aptly explains what I do. She went on, “Is there a reward for this?”
“No, I don't think so,” I said. “Well, there should be,” she declared.
So, ever since, with the memory of her sweet spirit, I have thought of myself as the toilet nurse. It isn't a title that I often share; some might not understand. But it is a title that I find rewarding and humbling. It makes me I smile.
I work with people who, along with families and friends, have had their entire lives changed in a moment by a medical condition or by a horrible accident. Their experiences, their courage, their suffering and their successes affect me. I know that bad things happen to good people. I see tragedies in my life and on a global scale. But some days when I get off my shift, I sit in my car and pound the steering wheel. I cry, and I yell at God. I ask, “Where, in all of this, is your mercy and your compassion?” “How can you do this?” “How can you let this happen?”
I see a twenty-year-old college student brain injured for life by a car accident, perhaps a paraplegic or a quadriplegic. I see the pain of those who love him. I see his despair, if and when he awakens and orients, to realize what he has lost. Some days it is too much. Those days, I sit in my car and scream at God and cry.
I drive home and sit in a quiet place and pray, prostrating myself before my God because I do not understand, and may never understand. And yet, I remember there is God, and he is holy and in control. I remember, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done” (Mt 6:9–13). The next day, I go to work.
A few days ago I was pounding the steering wheel of my car, again, asking God yet one more time where his mercy and his compassion and his love were in the life of one of my patients. After my outburst, I sat, emotionally and physically exhausted, in the silence. I heard from the depths of my heart his answer: Why do you think I put you at that bedside?
As a toilet nurse, I perform many mundane tasks, like keeping a patient clean. These are the tasks I cherish most—providing a patient, a person, with the precious sound of his name and an awareness of the dignity of her own being each time I enter his room and her life. Practicing nursing. Practicing my faith. Always practicing… remembering God in the midst of them.