Many years ago I used to work the night shift in a busy city hospital. One of the nurses I worked with was a woman I’ll call Diana.
Diana was tough as the leather jacket she wore riding her Harley-Davidson. When she finished her twelve-hour shift at the hospital she went on to her second job as a nurse in the local penitentiary. People who knew said the prisoners adored her. Despite her no-nonsense attitude she could be extraordinarily kind. She was equal parts salt, vinegar and sugar.
One night I heard a perfectly agile patient call her to his room to scratch his foot. Yeah, patients get like that. She fixed him with a glare Sister Mary Catherine would have been proud of and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself. The man next door doesn’t have any legs. Be grateful for what you’ve got.” Her patients either adored her or were in terror of her.
One night a 40-year-old man was admitted after having a stroke. ‘Pete’ was in a coma and the doctors did not expect him to survive. Diana was assigned to his care.
Night after night she would go into his room to look after him. “Hi Pete,” she’d say every time she entered his room. “I’m Diana. I’m here to look after you.” And look after him she did. She gave him his medication, turned him, bathed him, and talked. Diana wasn’t much of a talker as a rule. I think I’d known her six months before I discovered she was a single mother with three children.
But she talked to Pete. She told him stories about the prison, about her kids, about her world. I learned more about her life from the things she told Pete than from any conversation I’d ever had with her.
Pete remained in a coma, but Diana was undeterred. “Hearing is the last sense to go,” she reminded me. “Who knows what he’s able to hear?”
On her nights off, I took over Pete’s care. I took over Diana’s stories, too. Mostly I told him about her, about what she was like as a nurse. I told him about the time one of her patients was screaming in agony and the doctor refused to come to the unit, refused to order analgesia. Diana paged him from the patient’s room and held the receiver to the screaming patient’s mouth. “That’s your patient in pain, Doctor,” she said. “Now, what are you going to do about it?”
He ordered the medication.
When Pete’s family came in to visit, Diana asked them to bring in CDs with Pete’s favourite music. She told them to talk to him and tell him about what was going on in their lives. She encouraged them to keep hopeful.
After a couple of months, the doctors decided there was nothing more they could do for Pete on an acute care unit, and they discharged him to a rehab facility. He was gone by the time Diana came in for her next shift. She never got to say goodbye.
A few of months went by and I forgot about Pete. Then one day a tall, well-dressed man came in asking to speak to Diana.
She came out of a patient’s room, drying her hands. “Can I help you?” she said. She didn’t recognise him, not standing up and healthy. None of us did.
“Hi Diana,” he said, shaking her hand. “I’m Pete.”
He thanked all the staff for looking after him, but it was Diana he really wanted to meet. He heard every word she spoke to him. He was able to quote, verbatim, each tale she told him. He said, “You’re the reason I’m still here. Your stories kept me alive.”