My oncologist said I had “an especially virulent” form of lymphoma and, boy, did he get that right. After seven rounds of chemotherapy, a bone-marrow transplant, other miscellaneous medical procedures, and a year and a half spent in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities around the Twin Cities, I have finally emerged cancer-free, but I’m carrying some physical reminders (terrible neuropathy in my right leg) and some searing memories of what it took to complete this long journey.
One of my strongest memories, thankfully, is one of the sweetest: the tangible benefits of low-tech medicine and the laying on of hands.
In my first facility, Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital, I had a nurses’ assistant who kept her head low when she was in my room with other nurses and who mumbled things in English I couldn’t understand because of her Jamaican Creole accent. I believe that her relatively low rank and poor English skills forced her to stay quiet — except when she had the overnight shift. If she came into my room all alone at three in the morning, she would enter singing softly in a beautiful voice that sounded like a songbird freed from her cage.
I had terrible night sweats. During the worst of it, I would have to have my pajamas and linens changed three times throughout the night just to make it through until dawn. I always felt terrible when I hit the “nurse call” button at 1 a.m., or 2 or 3, and again at 4. I was interrupting these nurses to do a menial task that I should have been able to accomplish myself.
But there I was, thoroughly soaked in a salty brine of sweat caused by lymphoma and my overactive hypothalamus, while I waited for the nursing assistant to come in and help me.
I remember when my son was potty training and I would enter his bedroom in the middle of the night to change his urine-soaked pajamas and sheets. He would cry at the top of his lungs the whole time, and I would sweep him up in my arms and tell him it was OK. This was, on the face of it, an objectionable task. But I never minded doing it, because he was my son and I loved him very much; therefore, I loved doing this for him. It was an act of tenderness and kindness.
But these nursing assistants were complete strangers. Therefore, I thought, they must have a negative reaction to cleaning up after patients so many times each night. But they didn’t.
I find it absolutely remarkable how agreeable people are to helping you when you sit with your legs swung over the side of a bed at 2:30 a.m., in the dark, feeling weak, foolish and helpless all at the same time. And you know you’ll be pulling that cord and calling for more anonymous help at 4:45, and 6:30, and two or three more times the following night. And clean, replacement linen is ready and waiting for you; someone worked long and hard in the laundry to make sure that happened. And you’ll be quietly astonished and grateful for how kind these people are to you over and over when they come into your room early in the morning with a song on their lips. And you’ll wonder if you could ever be as kind to them, night after night, if they called out to you for help in a similar manner.
This is what your mom does for you, or your grandma, and you feel love flowing back and forth. You feel your lifelong bond being reinforced. When you ask a total stranger to do it for you, it feels odd and never quite right. But I was always struck by the essential act of grace performed by the people who pulled off my sweaty clothing at 4 in the morning. Yes, this person is doing this job because she (or he) is being paid, but there is an undercurrent of kindness and generosity.
I am a cancer survivor who was the beneficiary of remarkable medical care from scores of doctors, surgeons and nurses over an 18-month period. They literally saved my life. But the things I remember most are the wonderful people who changed my pajamas and bed linens with songs in their voices.
Jeremiah Christopher Whitten is a writer in Chaska. You can reach him on Twitter: @JeremiahWhitten.