Monday, February 05, 2007
Before I started volunteering at the hospital, I had theories about what would disturb me the most: seeing dead people, hearing people scream, bearing witness to tragic stories. I've done all of that now, and while none of it's my favorite part of the work, it's okay. I can handle it. Blood and other bodily fluids don't bother me; smells usually don't bother me; the occasional rude or nasty patient doesn't bother me. Granted, I sometimes think about all of those things after they've happened, sometimes for quite a while, but they don't throw me off balance. They're part of the natural order of things.
Last night, I saw a patient in end-stage liver disease whose skin was this exact shade of chartreuse. I've seen jaundice before, but I've never seen someone who literally had green skin. To say that it startled me would be an understatement.
I don't think my reaction showed. The patient was very nice, but feeling too sick to talk; later, I offered my services to family members, who said quietly, "No, we don't need a chaplain yet." (Last night's shift contained an unusually high percentage of people who believed that chaplains only show up for last rites . . . which, of course, I couldn't perform if I wanted to, since I'm not a Catholic priest. The last patient I visited became very agitated and said, "I don't need no chaplain! I'm not dying! I don't need no chaplain!" I tried to explain that I visit everyone, but the agitation continued, so I just left. I hate making people feel worse.)
I'm very sad for this patient and family; I've prayed for them. But I also can't get that skin color out of my head. It's just . . . wrong. It's not part of the natural order of things. Well, no: of course it's part of the natural order, or it wouldn't exist; but my instinctive reaction was a visceral horror I haven't felt in other situations.
There are undoubtedly deep insights to be gleaned here about racism, ostracism, and the stigma borne by people with visible skin conditions like leprosy. I haven't untangled all of that yet. But the incident has made me wonder if nurses and doctors ever have similar reactions, if -- despite everything they've seen and done -- some sights or sounds are so unexpected that they get through all the professional defenses and are burned into memory. And when that happens, how do medical caregivers deal with it, both in the moment and later on?