Friday, December 08, 2006

The Magic Shirt

This is the pattern of the scrub top I wear to the hospital. When I started volunteering as a chaplain, I wore street clothes, usually in fairly subdued colors. For a while, my standard outfit was entirely black, although I wore bright jewelry with it. Then, a year ago this past October, I went to get my free-to-volunteers flu shot at the hospital. There was a scrubs sale outisde the auditorium where the flu shots were being given. I saw this top and fell in love with the fabric, and I've worn it to every shift since then.

The first time I wore it, I was heading into the ER when one of the registration clerks started teasing me. "Oh, look at you! You're wearing scrubs now!"

"Yeah," I said, "I've gone native."

The clerk laughed. I think some staff find it annoying that I wear scrubs, as if I'm trying to look like a medical professional when I'm not. And patients do sometimes mistake me for a nurse, although some of them -- usually the ones begging for pain meds -- did that even before I started wearing scrubs. (Drug-seeking patients are an enormously fraught subject for ER staff. I've read agonized blog posts by people who dismissed Patient X as a drug-seeker, only to discover that the person was suffering from some genuine, hideously painful ailment. My own definition is simple: drug-seeking patients are the ones who keep begging me for Demerol even after I've said, "I'm sorry, but I'm the chaplain, so I can't help you with that.")

I don't care if my scrub top annoys other people, though, because I love it so much. The colors are gorgeous, and to me, the hearts and suns and moons and stars are all images of creation, reminders of the glory of God. Lots of patients have complimented me on the shirt. One gentleman, who was very enthusiastic about astrology, wanted it buy it from me so he could hang it on his wall. (I didn't sell it to him, but I gave him the name of the company, Cherokee, so he could buy his own. If I were a better Christian, I suppose I'd simply have given it to him.) And several times now, the shirt has had a very salutory effect on somewhat, ah, colorful patients.

A few weeks ago, I walked into one of our critical-care rooms and asked the nurse if I could visit a particular patient. "You don't want to talk to him," she told me. "He curses every other word."

Actually, cursing bothers me much less than it seems to bother many of the medical staff, or even the patients. Whenever someone at the hospital apologizes for cursing in my hearing, I say, "If God really minded bad words, we'd all be charcoal briquettes by now." But the patient was deep in conversation with someone else, a friend or relative, so I decided to come back later.

Before I could get back to that bedside, though, I saw the patient being wheeled to radiology. When he saw me, his face lit up. "Oh, what a pretty shirt! I love the colors!"

Now, that's not very blasphemous, is it?

A few weeks before that, we had the mother of all screamers in the ER. It was a busy night, and all the rooms were full, so the patient was on a gurney in the hall: struggling against four-point restraints and a chest strap, hurling very high-decibel expletives at everyone in range as a nurse with nerves of steel tried to start an IV, and as a cast of other characters -- me, several security guards, and a few other nurses and techs -- tried to calm her down.

"Ma'am," I said, "can you please be quiet? There are a lot of people here who don't feel well, and they need to rest."


"Ma'am," said one of the nurses, "there's a sick child trying to sleep in that room right there." (There wasn't, but the nurse told me later that this ploy sometimes works with obstreperous patients.)


One of the techs decided to use reverse psychology. "You just don't care about anybody else, do you?"


The husband of another patient came barreling out of a room across the hall. "Lady, my wife has a migraine, and she doesn't need to listen to you! Would you just shut up?"


This went on, and on. And on. We stood around helplessly, racking our brains for other strategies. And then, mid-scream, the patient raised her head (not an easy task, with all those restraints), saw me standing at the foot of her gurney, and said in a perfectly normal, conversational voice, "Oh, and I like your shirt!"

The nurses, techs and security guards all turned and gaped at me. I gaped at the patient. I'm pretty sure we were all thinking the same thing. What in the world? The patient, oblivious, drew in a deep breath and resumed her screaming. "LET ME GO! YOU F***ING MOTHERF***ERS CAN'T DO THIS TO ME! I HATE IT HERE! LET ME F***ING GO!"

Okay, so the magic shirt only worked for a few seconds. (Haldol and Ativan ultimately worked much better.) Still, they were a very welcome few seconds.

During another recent shift, I introduced myself to a patient who cocked her head, squinted at me, and said, "You don't look like a chaplain."

"Really? What do chaplains look like?"

"They don't wear scrubs."

I told her the story of finding my magic shirt, and we talked about why she was in the hospital, and about her job and family. At the end of the conversation, she smiled and said, "It's good that you don't look like a chaplain. It makes you less threatening."

Amen to that!

My magic shirt has faded now, from over a year of washing and ironing. (I never iron anything else, but ironing the magic shirt is a pre-shift ritual.) It's not nearly as pretty as it used to be. But that's okay, because I have it on good authority that Santa's bringing me another for Christmas.


  1. Lovely pattern, Susan! No wonder you love it and patients respond to it. It would brighten my day too.


  2. The subject of scrubs is actually a touchy one in many hospitals right now. There is a lot of research going on that says the patient can't recognize who "the nurse" is because we don't wear all white anymore, and some hospitals are trying to go back to nurses in all white for that purpose. Many nurses are resisting that due to the hatred of white uniforms (impossible to keep clean, and impossible to have any individuality). I know in our hospital, even the housekeeping and dietary staff now have uniforms that are more "scrub-looking" than "uniform looking". I personally don't mind, because I introduce myself as "a nurse" every time I interact with a patient, but that may be why you get some of the comments you do about a chaplain wearing scrubs...

  3. Hi, John! Actually, the comments I've gotten have been from patients, and a lot of nurses like the shirt. (I get the occasional glare or eye-roll, but nobody's asked me NOT to wear it; and the annoyance could be caused by other things, anyway.)

    I do often get nurses mixed up with EMTs, and occasionally with PAs, but that's what nametags are for. Introductions also help, as you noted. So do those little bedside whiteboards: "Your nurse is _____. Your EMT is ______."

    At least at my hospital, all staff are expected to introduce themselves clearly by name, title, and function: "Hi, my name's Susan. I'm a volunteer chaplain, and I'm here to see if there's anything you need to talk about, or if you'd like a prayer." Nurses and PAs and docs follow the same format. I imagine this is standard just about everywhere, no?

    All white for nurses makes no sense whatsoever. I'm thinking the people conducting this research have too much free time.

  4. Hi Susan,

    I also have a scrub top that features planets and stars (slightly more cartoony). I generally save it for pediatric rotations, but I did wear it through one summer working as an assistant in a palliative unit. One old woman with dementia was a real handful and mean to everybody, me included, except when I wore that shirt.

    Then, every time I saw her it she was all complements and asking where I'd bought it and did they have a size that would fit her. She was enough trouble when she got a chance to wander about that I can't imagine what mischief she would've managed had she gone native and was able to slip under the radar!

    Cheers, Jen

  5. Hi, Jen! Scary thought that someone with dementia would be able to pass for native, isn't it? LOL!

  6. I have a favourite scrub shirt too. I always feel just a bit more confident when I wear it. When something calls to you as that shirt did, there is often another voice behind it. Wear it in good health.

  7. Hi Susan,
    Just love the idea of a "magic shirt"... we could all use a little magic at work sometimes, something like the commercials about the "Easy" button on TV. I had a patient the other night who was convinced that she had caused herself to go into labor... "I'm pretty sure my labor went so fast because when I woke up I just pushed down." I had to smile. Honey, if it were that simple, my job would involve a LOT less of trying to get women in or out of labor. If only...
    Love this post, especially the screamer. True sign of mental illness to be screaming incoherently one moment and conversational the next, eh?

  8. Thanks, Mama Mia and ApgaRN! N: It wasn't clear what was going on with that patient. There were a lot of mixed signals, and the staff were trying to rule out various medical issues that could have produced the appearance of mental illness. I left before learning the outcome, but I hope the patient's okay.


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