The Pale Hand That Holds My Heart

Delta Winds cover 2011Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


The Pale Hand That Holds My Heart

Kelly-Ray Morriston

Every morning started with our old school, duct-taped Nokia radios. I remember my first day, my first time using that ancient walkie-talkie. I was so nervous, stumbling over my words that simply involved stating that we were in service. That day, we were told to go straight to a nursing home and pick up a patient who was in distress due to difficulty breathing and altered level of consciousness. We hauled that ambulance down I-880, blew through Oakland, and arrived in a shockingly terrible neighborhood. As I jumped out in my big boots and my jacket covered in badges, I felt my heart begin to race. I felt so important, so significant, to be the one yanking the gurney out of the back as the wheels banged against the uneven concrete.

I felt so heroic walking into this nursing home. We rushed right in, and I expected it to be like a TV show with people running up to us and shouting out the dire situation, handing us files, and a doctor somewhere screaming "Clear!" I was halted by quite the opposite. When my partner and I walked in, no one even seemed to notice us. It was as if we weren't there, as if there was no emergency. What I walked into was a gas chamber that reeked so horribly of ammonia from urine that my lungs literally tried to close. I awkwardly approached the desk, where four nurses were hovering, sharing laughs and pointless gossip. I said, "Excuse me? I'm here to pick up Mrs. Chan." One nurse allowed her eyes to roll up to mine, looked at me as if I were an annoyance, and in almost incomprehensible English, slurred, "Room twenty eight," and threw me a giant envelope that held a stack of papers.

"What?" I asked myself. "Are these people serious?" There's a human being lying in this building somewhere fighting to stay alive, and this woman is telling her co-worker about a barbeque. My partner snickered, "What'd you expect?" What I expected and what I walked into were two completely different things. Through the fog of odor produced by rotten skin and unchanged adult diapers, I searched for and found room number twenty-eight. What I saw was an Asian woman who had to be no more than eighty pounds. She was lying on her back, somewhat tilted to the side. She was stiff and decrepit, and her body was folded into a shape I never knew humans could be in. From a distance the naked eye couldn't even detect that she was breathing. I walked up slowly and was able to see that her chest was moving; she was breathing extremely shallow breaths, about six times a minute. I introduced myself, as I was taught, and looked at this helpless woman. I told her my name, and while touching her hand, I noticed that her fixated stare never even varied.

I tried to flag down a nurse, but nobody cared to help me. The situation was insane. This was just a wait for them, a period of time passing until the body was taken to the hospital and removed from their care; it was a bed that they cleared and a diaper they wouldn't have to worry about for the rest of the day. Finally a nurse walked in. She walked up to the small, fragile woman, and screamed, "Okay Mama, they go to take you now." She reached down, grabbed the patient by the sheet that she lay on, and effortlessly snatched her tiny body to the side of the bed. The woman's ghastly facial expression didn't change, and neither did one bone of her body. She seemed to slide along the bed as a mass, a chunk of body that was no longer human.

I have encountered hundreds of health care employees who do not possess even basic medical skills, and who lack the minimal compassion needed to care for others. Once I walked into a room with a man lying on his back, the left side of his body completely motionless and the left side of his face drooping. Any person with basic medical training knows that these are obvious symptoms of a stroke, and the victim has three hours to be treated. When I asked the nurse when this happened, he stated, "Around dinner time." I had to dig it out of him what time that was, and I finally found that it was two and a half hours prior to the call. In another half an hour, this patient could have been brain dead for the rest of his life-because of the incompetence and indifference of the medical personnel assigned to help him.

It is truly devastating to grasp that there are so many people who work with individuals experiencing the end of their lives, yet who care nothing about letting these people die with dignity. I never got used to the woman in a wheelchair trying to roll after me, crying and begging me to talk to her. When I was leaving, she would hold her pale, wrinkled hand out for me to hold in return, and ask me to stay for just a moment. I never got used to the man sitting in his wheelchair, staring out of the front door, wondering where he was. People walked in and walked out of that front door day after day, yet he never showed any interest in them. He just sat there, staring out into nothing, or possibly out into his own imagination, not knowing that there was a gauze pad falling off of his open scalp.

There was always an eerie feeling that lingered during those night visits, a sense of sadness and loneliness that radiated from the poor souls trapped in this hell called a nursing home. Some patients were unable to speak, unable to move from various medical issues that stole their being from them. What was left was their soul, their poor hearts imprisoned in lifeless bodies that couldn't express their pain, but their eyes would lock with mine and reveal how they had to suffer through every second, hoping and waiting to die.