Boot Camp

Neurosurgery rotation. All the older students say it will be depressing. We arrive on a Monday morning in October, not knowing what to expect. Orientation includes a tour of all the rooms. Most are occupied by patients who do not respond to ‘verbal stimuli.’ “The patients may not be able to answer you when you speak to them, but they may be able to hear you. Talk to them,” the head nurse says.

falling leaves
cold winds arrive
on time

I am assigned to a patient who is comatose and unresponsive, even to painful stimuli. I am told he is a policeman named Patrick who fell down a flight of subway stairs chasing a criminal. His Irish face is swollen and bruised …from the fall or the surgery…I don’t know. His head is swathed in white dressings and he has tubes from almost every orifice.

breathing lessons
I swim
into deep water

Gathering all the supplies I will need for his care, I return to his room. I look into his face for a long time. I take his vital signs and begin his morning care which involves a complete bath….eye care… mouth care. …tube feedings every few hours, turning him from one side to the other… skin care….suctioning. Before I begin each procedure, I explain what I am about to do and, if true, I assure him that it will not hurt. There is no response.

digging deep
to find my father’s
gift of gab

I tell him about the weather and the view out the window. Eventually, I talk about myself. I wish, for some reason, that I could sing. Alas, I can not carry a tune. Still, it is a skill I wish I had at this moment….. to comfort myself, I think. No one comes to visit him during visiting hours and since he is my only patient, I stay with him through the afternoon, until the end of my shift.

someone lights a candle
for me

I am surprised at the depth of feeling that I have for this man who never utters a word, who I know virtually nothing about and who may die soon, according to the head nurse. Still, I hold on to the possibility that somewhere in his damaged brain there is some cognition. I feel compelled to honor that as long as he is breathing. My heart space opens to this possibility of shared compassion.

a thin membrane
lets in the light


Failed Haiku: A Journal of English Senryu

August 2016

6 thoughts on “Boot Camp

  1. Barbara, This is beautiful on so many levels. The poetry and prose stand alone on their merits of rhythm, imagery and depth of meaning. But the empathy, compassion and deep connection you feel is a spiritual gift that you freely gave to your patient and, ultimately, comes back to yourself. Clearly your career in nursing was a true calling and not merely your profession. Anyone under your care was blessed.


Thank you!

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