Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Kids Know What Makes Them Barf

Herewith, a good nurse/bad nurse story from the dark ages.

In 1968, when I was seven, I had two operations in the same year. The first one, to remove my tonsils and adenoids, was done at Big Fancy Hospital in New York City, where my father and stepmother lived. I was scared, especially of shots, but a kind, smiling nurse with an alluring butterfly barrette distracted me so successfully that I didn't even realize when the needle went in. Good nurse! I had an intravenous anesthetic, so I didn't have to breathe smelly gas, and after the operation, I got to eat lots of ice cream because of my sore throat. It was about as good an experience as surgery can be.

So when I learned that I needed a second operation, this time to correct a wandering eye, I was very unhappy, but not as scared as I had been the first time. This surgery would be performed at Small Local Hospital in New Jersey, a block from my mother's house. We knew ahead of time that the anesthetic would be ether, really smelly gas: my mother helped me "train" by sniffing her nail-polish remover. I got used to that, so I thought I could handle the ether. And my doctor warned me that I'd have patches over both eyes after the operation, because he didn't want me to be scared when I woke up and couldn't see anything.

But ether is much, much smellier than nail polish remover. I fought against the mask, but the OR staff were bigger than I was, and they pressed the mask down on my face so I had to keep breathing the gas. I felt like I was suffocating.

Then I woke up. Not only couldn't I see, but I couldn't bend my arms. The doctor had warned me about the eye patches, but nobody had told me that I'd have stiff towels wrapped around both arms, to keep me from scratching my eyes. I thought I'd fallen off the operating table and broken both my arms.

I begged and begged to get the eye patches off, so I'd be able to see, and finally someone agreed. But the towels stayed. I could only reach things that were at arm's length; I had to move like Frankenstein's monster.

My roommate was a fourteen year old girl who'd just had her fourteenth ear surgery. She had to sleep sitting up, with towels wrapped around her head. I thought she was very brave.

In the middle of the night, I had to go to the bathroom. I managed to get my call button at arm's length, and pressed it. No answer. I pressed it again. No answer. I must have pressed it five more times: nobody came. By now I really had to go to the bathroom, but I couldn't lower my own bedrails, especially with those towels on my arms. My turbaned roommate rang her call button, because we thought maybe mine was broken. No luck. So finally she got out of bed and helped me get to the bathroom.

Using the bathroom isn't very easy when your arms aren't working right. I suspect my roommate had to help me quite a bit, although I don't remember.

The next morning, my breakfast tray arrived. It was oatmeal. I like oatmeal now, but I hated it then, and it invariably made me sick to my stomach. So I pressed my call button. This time a very harried nurse showed up. "If I eat oatmeal, I'll throw up," I told her.

"Just eat your breakfast."

"But I'll throw up! I always throw up when I eat oatmeal."

"Just eat it!" she said, and went away.

I ate it. (The towels must have been off by then, or I wouldn't have been able to feed myself.) I threw up. I pressed my call button. Nurse Oatmeal came back. "Now what have you done? Look at this mess! I'm going to have to change your sheets!"

I was only seven, but I knew injustice when I saw it. "But I told you oatmeal makes me throw up! You said I had to eat it anyway!"

Bad nurse.

My parents were furious when they learned what had happened. I don't know if anyone filed a complaint. Looking back at it now, I suspect the place was drastically understaffed -- which would explain the lack of response to middle-of-the-night call buttons -- and that Nurse Oatmeal's anger at me was really anger at herself for not listening to me. At least, that's what I hope it was. Otherwise, it's really hard to explain this story.

As an adult who volunteers in an ER, I can tell you that everybody bends over backwards to be nice to kids. Adult staff feel for children (unless the kids are atrociously behaved, which only happens occasionally); they have little contests to see who can make the baby smile; they do everything humanly possible to make pediatric procedures easier. ER staff know that children hate having their arms immobilized for easier IV access. I've seen nurses give a child's teddy bear a matching arm splint and IV so the kid will have company (and this is in a department where there's very little time to do anything extra). When a child's howling, being held down for a blood draw or a shot, everyone's miserable.

These are ER staff. They aren't working on a peds ward. They didn't go into medicine specifically to work with children, but they still do everything they can to follow the Butterfly Barrette model.

Nurse Oatmeal, presumably, had chosen to work on a peds ward. Or maybe she hadn't? Maybe she'd just been assigned there? Maybe she'd been called in because of a staffing shortage, and that's why she was so mean? Or maybe she was a young nurse who thought she'd like peds and then found out she didn't? (She seemed old to me, but I was only seven.)

I still don't get it, even almost forty years later.

But I do know this: Kids know what makes them barf. Nurses, please listen to them!


  1. Interesting story, Susan.

    My first stay in a hospital as a child was not bad. I got to the hospital at supper time and desert was cherry pie, my favorite! Yes I had to have gas but they put me to sleep first with something else so I don't remember smelling it. Later my mom told me that after my surgery, which was for a hernia, I was kept drugged on something horribly narcotic because I kept throwing up in reaction to the gas.

    I filed that last bit of information in my head for later hospital visits nad it has come in handy at times.

    My biggest fear is of needles so it was really nice of a nurse to distract me as an adult too. She was busy telling me that it was her first time to do this thing as a student, but while I was listening to her talk she got the new, plastic and flexible, IV needle into my arm without any discomfort at all. Good nurse!


  2. Nurse Oatmeal just moved on to gerries. After all, NOBODY cares what happens to them. My dear departed ma in law was in Addenbrookes in Cambridge - a v. famous hospital - where she was dropped, got MRSA and was seriously misdiagnosed by a surgeon she knew and wouldn't talk to because she thought he was a mendacious, philandering thief (she was right, as it transpired) At that time, the BBC (a broadcasting organisation you may have heard of) were doing a weeklong 'hospital watch' at Addenbrookes. Can you guess which were the ONLY wards they didn't enter? Of course, G+H, the geriatric wards.

    Of course, the patients are rarely beautiful, photogenic, hygenic or blessed with sweet voices, although some do curse like angels.

    I never had any problems with gas or needles. Why, I even had a lumbar puncture and smiled. Of course, I had already been pumped full of morphine while they tried to diagnose my transverse mielitis.

    Dear departed ma in law, though, had to be held down for a jab, and she was 75 when she last needed an innoculation for a jaunt somewhere less fragrant than here (Syria, as I recall)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.