I’ve worked in nursing homes for almost twenty years. I’ve dealt with dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and so much more. I think it goes without saying that I’ve also dealt with death, however, my way of handling it was not like the others.
Impending death has distinct symptoms. The patients’ eyes will glaze over which is often referred to as, “the death gaze” and their breathing changes. Although the medical term is called rales, in laymen terms it’s called, “the death rattle.” Some patients even begin a molting process where there is no blood circulation. Usually it begins in the feet and their skin turns a pasty white.
The most phenomenal thing I’ve ever noticed was the distinct smell of death. Some of us could literally smell Death and his scent in the hallway days before someone took a turn for the worst. We may not have known who Death came to collect at the time, but we usually knew he was there.
Whenever I came on the floor and was told someone would most likely pass on my shift, I would go down to their room and have a talk with that person. I calmly explained to them my situation.
“I do not handle death very well,” I would explain. “Please wait until in the morning after I’ve gone.”
At first, the other nurses would laugh at me … at first. They quit laughing when they realized it worked with me. After witnessing this for a few years, some of the nurses referred to it as ‘the talk.’
My nursing assistants, who worked the graveyard shift with me, were the first to quit laughing. They would often instruct me, “Now go on down there and have ‘the talk,’ with Mrs. X so she doesn’t go on us,” (They hated post mortem care).
In all of the years that I worked in geriatrics and nursing homes, I have had maybe ten patients die on me. That is amazing if you consider the odds of people passing away and the number of patients that I’ve cared for in that twenty year span of geriatric care. That low number alone tells me my theory works. Since hearing is the last sense to leave us, I was sure they heard my pleas.
I recall one patient I went in and had ‘the talk’ with. She had been holding on for two days already. Even so, I was sure my chat with her would be just as effective as any other day.
“She’s just waiting for you,” Jennifer snickered as we counted on/off shift narcotics.
“We’ll see about that,” I responded and promptly went to the room. I said to the patient, “I know Margaret is your favorite nurse and you’d like to say goodbye to her. She works in the morning so please, just wait for her. She’ll be here at 7:00.
That talk was on a Friday night. Margaret didn’t come to work Saturday. I did it again, Saturday night and again, Margaret didn’t come to work on Sunday. I was nervous as I repeated my request that night and when Margaret didn’t come in on Monday, I decided to look at the schedule. She was off until Tuesday morning. She had a three-day weekend.
I went in to explain the situation. “I know I said for the last three nights that Margaret would be here in the morning and she didn’t show up. According to the schedule, she’s going to be here for sure this morning. I promise she will be here and on time. Just hold on.”
The patient had already been holding on a total of five days so, needless, to say, I was pleading with her. It didn’t work, though. Around 5:00 that morning, she decided she had waited long enough and it was time to leave us. When Margaret came in, I told her what happened.
“Well, she held on as long as she could,” Margret sympathized.
“I think she did it out of spite because she thought I was lying to her,” I admitted with a chuckle. “I didn’t mean to lie to her, though.”
I believe my worst experience was during the spring. The aides came to tell me that our newest patient had passed away in her sleep. It was a sudden thing, absent of all impending symptoms of death. Even his odor escaped us. She was just gone almost as fast as she came to us. As I went to call the doctor, I realized it was Mother’s Day.
I called the Assistant Director of Nurses and told her what happened. “Did you call the family?” Martha asked.
“No, and I won’t, either,” I responded.
“Why not?” she asked confused that I refused to make the call and notify the family of the death. “I know patients don’t usually die on you, Michelle, but come on! It’s part of the job. Why won’t you call her?”
“Because, it’s Mother’s Day and I will not call her daughter and tell her today that her mother has died. If you want to wait until tomorrow, fine. I’ll call her then, but it will not be today.”
Martha made the call. When Margaret came in that morning, I told her what had happened during our report.
“I just couldn’t call her on Mother’s Day and say ‘Your mom just died, Happy Mother’s Day!’ I just couldn’t do it,” I explained. “Not today of all days. You know what else? I can’t believe she died so suddenly, either.”
“It’s okay, Michelle,” Margaret said sympathetically as she patted my back. “You’ll have to forgive her. She didn’t know the rules or that she had to wait for ‘the talk’.”
Miss Dorothy Pearlman was a 38 year old single black female who came to us with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Sadly, she came to die, but in comfort. Her only living sibling, a sister, was unable to care for her during her debilitation and it was agreed between the two of them that Dorothy would stay with us for the 24 hour around-the-clock nursing care she needed.
Miss Pearlman was admitted to room 411, just outside the nurse’s station. We kept her close to us. Twice her PCA (Patient Controlled Analgesia) pump beeped loudly. The pump allowed her to medicate herself whenever needed. Both times, it blew her veins and caused her a lot of pain. After the last time, we made sure to monitor the pump closely to catch the infiltration before it started to hurt her.
Her favorite aide was April. Although April was not a very religious person, she would spend a lot of time with Dorothy talking about the Bible and praying with her. She catered to Dorothy like a mother hen so much that Dorothy used to tell April when she died she was going to come back and visit her.
“You know, Michelle,” April said to me one night, “I love Miss Dorothy, but if she ever did come back to visit me, I would turn as white as you!”
“I don’t think it would be to haunt you,” I offered with a laugh. “I’m sure it would be just to let you know that she is okay and is no longer suffering.”
As April left to make her rounds, she stated clearly, “She does not need to come back and tell me that. I’m sure God will take of her once she leaves this world.”
Dorothy only stayed with us for six weeks. We came into work one afternoon to find her room by the nurses’ station empty. She had passed away only hours before. Because of the cancer, it was very quick and sudden.
Jane, the 7-3 nurse, complained, “I’ve been hearing Miss Pearlman’s PCA pump beep all morning. I forget she’s gone until I go to check on her.”
At the time, I neglected to tell April any of that even when April said, “As sad as it is, I’m glad she’s gone. She was hurting so bad these last few days.”
Instead, the prankster in me took over. When April was down the hall, I’d run into the room and turn on the call light to room 411 and then run off and be somewhere else before April could get to the room.
“Michelle, I know that’s you,” she declared after the third time.
I was coming out of the bathroom. “It isn’t me,” I lied innocently enough. “How can I have done it and be in the bathroom at the same time?”
“It can’t be Miss Dorothy. Do you think she really did come back to see me?” April asked a little unsure.
I shrugged. “Maybe she did? I have heard the PCA pump beep a couple of times (and I had) and, of course, the call light keeps going off so, who knows.”
“Yeah, but I still kind of think that’s you.”
Just before our shift ended, my staff and I were sitting at the nurses’ station waiting for the 11-7 shift to come on and take over when the call light to room 411 came on all by itself. We were all sitting there together when it happened. April turned to look at me and then turned three shades lighter in the face.
I must have been wearing the same look of surprise because she said, “It was you earlier, wasn’t it?”
With a nervous laugh, I admitted that earlier it was me, but we could all plainly see, it wasn’t me that time.
The following day, the nurse reported that the light buzzed the entire night and the call light stayed lit over the door. Maintenance couldn’t find any logical reason, especially since it had been unplugged and the cord removed from the room earlier that morning.
Was it Dorothy or just a coincidence and how did I manage to turn the light on if it maintenance had already disconnected it? I guess we’ll never really know.
When I was in nursing school, we had an instructor, Ms. Gordon, whom I felt was pretty naïve. She lived with a doctor and apparently, he did nothing to wisen her up. She claimed they were together romantically. I wasn’t so sure. I know I was young and dumb but she was just plain dumb.
We were sitting in class one day and she began talking about men in regards to the size of their penis. I laid my pen down and listened to her chatter away.
“If men have big feet and hands, they will have a large penis,” she stated as fact.
Who was I to argue, I had only been with one man.
Someone snickered and Ms. Gordon responded adamantly, “It’s almost impossible to have large hands and feet and be small down there. He would be ill proportioned.”
I thought to myself, Dr. Johnson must have a small pee-pee then. He was after all, a small man in stature.
Several weeks later, she was talking about men waking up in the morning 'aroused'. She sat twirling her hair and said, “You know why they do that don’t you?”
I raised my hand and answered, “Because they have to pee.”
“No, it’s because they have been having those wild dreams of a sexual nature,” she answered.
I slightly turned my head and looked out of the corner of my eye at my fellow classmate, Nancy Jones. Nancy let out a blurb of laughter and then composed herself. “Are you sure it isn’t because they have to pee,” I said again.
The teacher rolled her eyes and laughed a little. “Yes, I’m sure, Michelle. I live with a doctor and we laugh about his crazy dreams all the time.”
Surely, she must be joking, I thought. “So when my little brother was six months old and he would get little woodies whenever he had to pee, are you saying he was just really having dreams of porking the little 4 month old cutie next door?”
She rolled her eyes a second time. I glanced at Nancy again who, while smiling and a slight shake of her head, put her finger to her lips and motioned for me to not say anything else.
The next morning I pounced on my husband who groaned and said, “Stop, I have to pee!”
“That’s not what I hear,” I said laughing and then explained what my nursing instructor had said.
Not long after, she was talking again about things she apparently knew nothing about. She had my undivided attention. This time, Ms. Gordon was talking about condoms. She said, “In order for a condom to be effective, it has to have holes in it.”
Without looking at Nancy, I blurted out, “What!”
Startled, she turned to me and said, “Think, Michelle, how else is the fluid supposed to drain out? The condom acts as a net and catches the sperm while draining away the secretions that keep the sperm alive.”
“You can’t be serious,” I insisted.
“Now this, I know something about,” she said shaking her finger at me. “I bought a box of them the other night and we (her and Dr. Johnson) couldn’t use them because every one of them was intact without holes so we cannot have sex until I take the box back to the pharmacy and got a new one.”
From my right, Nancy asked, “Why not just use a needle and pop holes in them?”
Was I mistaken or did Nancy sound like she was about to start laughing?
“I didn’t think about that,” Ms. Gordon said in deep thought. “Dr. Johnson told me to take them back and just explain to the pharmacist they were defective and to get a new box.”
“How old are you,” I asked my instructor unexpectedly.
She looked at me strangely and answered, “I’m 36, why?”
“Tell the truth,” I said sitting up straight, “Have you ever had sex before?”
Nancy laughed so hard. She stood up and waved her hand at me, “Stop, please.” To the teacher she said, “I need to go to the bathroom; I have to pee.”
While we were out in the break area I asked Nancy “Was she serious? Is she really that stupid?”
Nancy just laughed. Finally, she pulled herself together and said, “You know she and Dr. Johnson split up, don’t you?” After confirming I didn’t, Nancy explained, “Dr. Johnson is really good friends with my neighbors and he told them he told her he was relocating and moving out of town. He didn’t think she should come with him.”
“Where did he move to?” I was intrigued.
“To Hemingway, about thirty miles away,” she laughed and headed toward the classroom. “He told my neighbors he had to get away from her.”
“Can you blame him?” I muttered as I took my seat.
After that, I only paid attention to her if she were discussing nursing because that she was very good at. Anytime she talked about men or relationships, I totally ignored her.
While working for BE&K Construction company as an industrial nurse and running their medical department for them, I noticed a Port-A-John sitting outside my office window. A thought occurred to me as I looked at the back of the porta-potty. I decided to give my boss a taste of my morbid sense of humor.
For the first time ever, I left the compound for lunch. When I came back, I had an intercom system with me. I borrowed some electrical tape from the electricians working across the compound and taped the receiver to the outdoor vent behind the Port-A-John; then I strung the wires up and fed them through my window to my desk where I had the other piece of the intercom system. Then, I sat back and waited.
I couldn’t see who went in but I could hear the door as it squeaked open. Suffice to say it went all downhill from there when my first victim entered. I heard the door open and waited a few minutes so they could drop their britches and then I said, “Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?”
I could hear them as they moved around inside the cubicle. It sounded like they were bouncing around in there. I spoke again. “Oh my God, I would put that thing away if I were you! You don’t show that to anyone, do you?” I heard the door open and then slam shut.
I think I started a trend because within two hours, I had people from all over the paper mill coming to hear my talking Port-A-John. I had some funny incidents, too.
I had an electrician come over one day and tell me to look outside my door. There was an iron foreman and his ironworker standing near the electrician’s mill hut. I could see they were arguing. The ironworker was very adamant in his gestures as he pointed to the potty and the foreman just as adamantly pointing to my office next to it.
Finally, he came in and said, “Michelle, you have to stop scaring the workers. He thinks the shithouse is haunted and is out there telling me there’s a ghost in it. I told him it was you!”
“Well, tell him to come here, I’ll tell him what’s going on then.” By this time, I must have had five more electricians crowded in my office. The guy came in and the iron foreman said for me to tell him what was going on out there. I said, “It’s haunted and there’s a ghostie in there looking at your Mr. Winky Dinkle when you tinkle.”
I think after I said that to him and the other men in the office cracked up, the poor little ironworker realized it was just me, not a ghost, and laughed too. He was okay after that.
One man went in and when I told him to stop tinkling on my head and in my eyes, he said, “I’m not going to the bathroom, Michelle. I just wanted to see what you would say.”
Another man laughed hysterically when I tried to talk to him about “the tiny size of things” while assuring him, he should be very embarrassed. When he left the porta-potty, I went to the door to see who it was. I got the joke when I saw him. He was a six-foot-five black man and he was still laughing hysterically as he walked across the compound.
Several days into this, I heard the door open and slam closed. If I could have smelled the dang cigar, I would have kept my mouth shut but, as I said, I couldn’t see who went in so there was no way of knowing. I started my spiel about him being embarrassed about his anatomy and then I heard a voice I knew: Jack Simms. He was the big boss; the one running the entire show.
“Michelle,” he said, as I pictured him removing his cigar long enough to say my name.
“Uhm, yes, Jack?”
“I have to hear this shit whenever I go home to my wife. Can you please lie to me and tell me how huge it looks? Oh, and by the way, I want some of those boiled peanuts you had your father-in-law bring you thirty minutes ago. I hope you didn’t eat them all ready because I think I deserve half of that five-pound bag you had him smuggle back here.”
Jack didn’t miss a trick. We sat in the office eating boiled peanuts for an hour. During that time, he took control of my intercom box. He was barking orders at the men about “getting their asses back to work,” in addition to “trying” to flirt with some of them. With his gruff and booming voice though, I think he scared the bejesus out of most of those men. Can you imagine a man suddenly talking to you as you’re trying to relieve yourself, saying “Hey honey, want to go out Friday night? I hear Jack is going to give you the night off.”
On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I went over to visit our friends, Sam and Lori Kavanaugh. Sam worked at BE&K (he still does work there) as a foreman. While standing at the sink he said to me, “Michelle, I almost sent one of my men home for doing drugs or drinking on the job. I know I made him to go the personnel office and submit a drug test.”
“Why,” I asked while sitting at his kitchen table.
“Have you heard anything about a talking shithouse and …” his voice trailed off as he looked over his shoulder at me.Laughing he said, “I should have known. Especially when he said it was at the nurse’s office.”
When I worked about 45 miles away from home, my husband wasn’t too thrilled. A friend of ours, Tom Sawyer (yes, that’s his real name), being aware of the problem told me they were hiring where he worked. He worked for a construction company’s maintenance crew inside of the Georgetown Paper Mill.
“We need a nurse for an upcoming shut down. We need someone who can run the First-Aid office,” Tom explained. “It’s a temporary position but the job is for six to eight months. Maybe during that time you can find something closer to home and Reese will be happy. If nothing else he’ll be happy for six months.”
I wasn’t really interested; however, Tom had a good point. It would get Reese off my back for six months. Begrudgingly I agreed and said, “Bring me an application and I’ll fill it out.”
A week later, Tom calls me and says, “I just talked to my boss. His name is Jimmy Johnson. He and his boss, Jack Simms, want to meet with you this week for an interview.”
I asked Tom what he thought my chances were. He conceded they were not good as Jimmy and Jack were wrapping up interviews and I was the last one they were taking. “Please come anyway and give it a shot. You never know.”
I met with Jack and Jimmy at the paper mill. After salutations and pleasantries were exchanged, Jack said to me, “Michelle, I’m going to be honest here: We’re only granting this interview as a favor to Tommy.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve had over 150 applicants and we’ve managed to narrow it down to only three,” Jimmy explained. “If you don’t want to do this, we’ll understand.”
I kind of smiled and said, “No, that’s okay. You two got me here and I don’t have anything better to do, so let’s do it.”
We went through the entire interview and then Jack asked, “Do you have a problem working with Dr. Williams?”
At the mere mention of his name, I started laughing and said, “No, I don’t have a problem with him. We’ve never really met before but I’m sure he’ll remember me.”
Jack and Jimmy looked at one another before asking, “Why is that?”
I tried as hard as I could to explain it to them without laughing but I couldn’t help it. I laughed through the entire story. “Last summer, my husband and I were boating out on Black River. Dr. Williams has a house on Black River and we were right in front of it. He and his son, also a doctor, were standing on the boat dock when I had jumped into the river.”
I stopped to catch my breath and contain my giggles. Failing miserably I went on, “When I went to get back into the boat, I couldn’t. My soaking wet fat ass kept pulling me back into the water. At one point, my husband jumped into the river and tried to push me in while two of our friends were pulling me in. I was laughing so hysterically that I kept falling off my husband’s head as he was pushing me up (I demonstrated with my hands the motion of him pushing me upwards into the boat) then everyone started laughing, including Dr. Williams and his son. I bet Dr. Williams will remember that,” I concluded.
Both Jack and Jimmy were laughing as well. Jack stood up and excused himself for a minute, directing Jimmy to go with him. They stood on the other side of the room talking in hushed whispers, but I heard everything they said.
Jimmy told Jack, “I want her. I don’t care how much she wants an hour, either.”
Jack concurred and whispered, “Do you think she’ll take $7 an hour?” (That was top dollar back then)
“I don’t know,” Jimmy answered, “Let’s go ask her.” Walking back to the table, Jack asked, “How much will you take an hour, starting pay?”
“I’ll take nine,” I answered straight-faced.
Jack pointed his cigar at me and said, “Done! You start Monday.”