The Candy Striper

When I was growing up, both my mom and grandmother were nurses at our small town hospital. Sometimes my brother and I would accompany my mom if she needed to pop into the hospital for a minute to talk to a coworker, or pick up some paperwork, do grown-upy stuff that I didn’t pay attention to because grown-ups are boring, amirite? You have no idea how many times during these visits I was asked by other hospital employees, “Are you going to be a nurse just like your mom and your grandma?”

Even as a small girl, I knew health care wasn’t the field for me. I saw how hard those nurses worked. I knew they were away from their families on weekends and holidays so they could care for other people’s loved ones. I watched my mother drop into a chair after work, exhausted from being on her feet all day, and I delighted in offering to help her take her shoes off and listening to her “ahh…” when her poor toes were freed from those white nurses sneakers. I was proud of the important work my mother and grandmother did, but I knew I didn’t have the deep compassion necessary to care for people at their most vulnerable, and more importantly, bodily fluids grossed me out. So no, I didn’t think I’d go into nursing, and yes, I knew I’d be responsible for breaking tradition.

I did, however think I could be a candy striper. Our little hospital had a nursing home attached to it, and they were always looking for extra help.Volunteerism is important, and I could push old people around in wheelchairs or read to them, or whatever candy stripers do. That didn’t seem too hard, and it would be a great resume builder. I hoped I would get to wear one of those cute candy striper uniforms, like the one Lisa Turtle wore on Saved by the Bell. I didn’t expect to see any hotties like Zack Morris, but I could do a good deed and make my mom and grandma proud, all just by reading the newspaper. I was young, but I loved the hell out of the newspaper. In high school, I read the paper cover to cover every day. I was much more informed than I am now.

My first day I was pretty nervous. Old people can be weird, and at that point in my life, I treated them like I did small children. I didn’t know how much they could understand or communicate, I felt like we had nothing in common, and they were unpredictable. Also like little kids, they sometimes smelled funny, and if I was there for meal time, would I need to help cut their food? Some kids get pissed if you try to help them and they don’t want help, and I knew from doing some odd jobs with my grandpa, old people can get mad pretty easily, too. My mom told me it would be okay, and I believed her. I came from a long line of caregivers. I could do this.

I met the volunteer coordinator, and she walked me through the basics – what was happening in the dining hall (some card game) where to find the bathrooms, and that I wouldn’t be getting an adorable uniform. Lame-o. She walked me to a room with two beds, one occupied. There was a woman in the bed, and she was sleeping. I thought it was rude to wake her up, but that’s what the employee did. The woman was groggy, but we were introduced, and I was directed to read. There was a stack of books and a newspaper, and I asked the woman in the bed what she wanted me to read. She didn’t answer, so I selected the newspaper, and started in with the front page.

About halfway through the second story, I started to get dizzy. It was hot in that room, and I couldn’t tell if the woman was asleep or awake. I started to wonder if she was still alive. What if she died, and I was just plugging away at front page, moving on to the regional sections and just reading the farm report to a dead lady? If she wasn’t dead, was she even listening? Did she want to hear about the local basketball team or should I skip that story?

I stopped reading and looked at her. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing, but what were the chances of her expiring just 45 minutes since I met her? Should I check her pulse? Could I do that without touching her? I looked at my watch. Not 45 minutes, 15 minutes. I’d only been reading for 15 minutes? It got hotter, and I got dizzier. I started to panic, and I had to get out of that room.

I put down the paper, walked through the door into the hallway, and fainted. The coordinator called my mom, who happened to be working, and she came and got me. I pretended I was sick, she managed to not roll her eyes, laugh in my face, or look disappointed. I never went back, and from that day on, when anyone asked me if I was going to be a nurse like my mom and my grandma, my mom stifled a smirk, and my “No” was much more vehement.

Over the years I have become more compassionate, and I am no longer afraid of children or the elderly. I wish I would have been brave enough to go back to that nursing home, and I truly respect and admire people like my mother, grandmother, and my brother’s wife, who take care of sick people for a living. The hours are long and the job is physically and emotionally demanding. If you are one of these people, you are doing God’s work. Thank you. And to all of you future candy stripers: When you read to me, don’t skip over the police log. That’s my favorite part.

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