It was three days before I noticed it. The third night that Molly was my nurse, I spotted her wrist tattoo: a graphic of some kind, and what seemed to be Hebrew writing. At first, I tried to sneak a better glimpse. When my surreptitious peeks didn’t work, I broke down and asked this delightful, soprano-voiced nurse about the tattoo.
“Is that Hebrew?”
“Why? You’re not Jewish are you?”
“No, so I worked diligently to be sure I had the letters right.” She explained the tattoo to me. “The heart is anatomically correct. The Hebrew says, ‘Refined by fire.’”
“The first word I don’t recognize, but the rest is certainly correct. But what’s the significance to you, and why Hebrew?”
“The heart is because I’m a nurse. The reason I’m a nurse is that I had a close childhood friend who died of heart disease when we were eleven—we were born only a month apart. The idea of refining is because I’m also a metalworker, with both a bachelors and a master’s degree in the art form. Each time you pass the metal through the fire, more impurities run off. And in life, our hearts are refined by the difficulties we face.”
Later that day an Israeli friend visited and confirmed the accuracy of the Hebrew. It turns out that Molly’s father is a Protestant minister, who teaches Hebrew Bible. Molly says she checked and rechecked with his books. Still, I think she was relieved to know that she had gotten it right.
Molly was just one of the interesting, caring, even loving nurses who cared for me during my two weeks in the hospital. Ashleigh was a young, bouncy Patient Care Technician who performed non-skilled nursing duties. They were a great team, giving my roommate Susan and me the best possible care with good cheer and wide, inviting smiles.
Love’s taffy pink uniform popped out against her gleaming black-brown skin and caught my attention.
“May I clean your room?”
“Certainly. What’s your name?”
“My mama named me ‘Love.’”
“Then she must have loved you a lot.”
Her answer was a broad grin.
When she had finished sweeping, dusting, and cleaning the door handles, she thanked me for letting her clean my space.
Each day she asked permission to clean; every time, she thanked me for letting her. When I moved down the hall to a private room, we continued the ritual, just earlier in the morning. On our last morning, a few hours before my discharge, I asked about her accent. “Where are you from?”
“Nigeria,” she said in her gentle voice.
I prodded softly. “Tell me more.”
“I came here fifteen years ago with my husband and our two sons. My husband died five years ago.” By then, she had two more children, another son and a daughter. To keep her children fed and clothed, she works two full-time jobs: cleaning nights at the Jewish home, days at Highland Hospital. And I’m sure that in both places she is equally beloved and admired.
I asked Love about her older sons. The second is a computer person. The eldest will graduate in another year as a doctor of ophthalmology. I can barely imagine the pride with which she’ll see him graduate in his cap and gown, a contrast to the uniform she’ll no doubt leave behind for the ceremony. As she finished cleaning, I contemplated what people can make happen when they work hard, and steadily, and keep their eyes on their goals. What a lesson in resolve, always with a strong dose of love. Her heart, and her children’s abilities, were surely forged in the fire of their lives.
Perhaps the most caring of the caring was Ellen, a short-ish redhead who was not necessarily the most skilled Patient Care Tech, as Highland Hospital calls its aides. I was her patient, and she came into my room not long after Dr. Angel, my oncologist, had recommended hospice on the theory that the latest chemo hadn’t worked. There were others she could recommend, but each was tougher on the body than the one before it. They might or might not work for awhile, but while extending my lifespan, they would surely diminish my quality of life. As I repeated this to Ellen, my fountain of tears opened. Instead of turning aside, as some nurses and/or techs might do, Ellen lay her head on my knee. Together, we sobbed. She stroked my knee and wept with me. Her tears were a comfort, reminding me that I wasn’t alone. That everyone dies. That cancer patients may reach the end sooner, but they need not face the future by themselves.
Every weekday after that, Ellen popped in sometime during the day. Even when I wasn’t her patient, I saw her smiling face, felt her loving touch, experienced her caring voice. My last conversation with her was when she pushed my wheelchair to the discharge door. While we waited for my husband to bring his car around, she and my daughter discussed custody arrangements stemming from their respective divorces, the difficulty of facing up to their own tough situations. I understood then that her exceptional tenderness stemmed from her own pain, a different pain from my own, but one that had softened her into a truly beautiful person. A person I was lucky enough to encounter when I most needed her.
“Refined by the fire.” A perfect sentiment for a nurse, or, indeed, a patient, whose heart, like mine, has been purified by loss, by illness, by sorrow and joy; indeed, by life ”