In February of 2023, we released our third Open Call: How might we reflect and reimagine wellness in public health as art, letters, stories and poetry? The following is a story submission we received from this open call.
“My work shines a light on the mindset of a nurse and the importance of the nurse’s relationship to their patients in the hospital setting. Hospitals can be a stressful place, both for those who work and live their while ill, but by forming strong bonds between healthcare worker and patient their lives can improve, and they might even forget their troubles for a little while. It is important though for nurses to not completely lose themselves in their work though, and sacrifice their own health and wellbeing by becoming too invested than is healthy in their work in public health.”
My head was killing me.
I rubbed my temples and shut my eyes, trying to block out the glare of the fluorescent lights I’d been standing under for nearly 12 hours. But it didn’t help much. I opened my eyes to stare at the coffee mug beside my computer but couldn’t convince myself to reach for it. The coffee here was spat out by a machine almost as old as the hospital I worked in, and it left an odd sludgy texture on the tongue and a smell that’d linger in nostrils. It was a coffee for necessity, not for want, and right now I was close enough to clocking out that I didn’t need it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Doctor Eastman entering the ward, so I sat up a little straighter and tried to look alert, though I couldn’t get my eyes to focus on my computer monitor. “Hello, doctor,” I greeted him, as he paused at the curved counter behind my monitor. “How’s your night going?”
Doctor Eastman grunted and picked up a patient’s chart, which was sitting on the edge of the counter. He didn’t return my greeting. I didn’t take it personally – he’d been here today much longer than my 12 hours.
Anticipating his questions, I said, “Your patient in room 24 is stable. I checked on her about an hour ago. Her pain was at a level 2, and she accepted a Tylenol. All of that’s on the chart of course…” I forced my mouth closed before I could babble more. I was a seasoned RN, but Doctor Eastman made me feel like I was back in the early days of my career as an LPN. I cleared my throat and said, “Let me know if there’s anything else you need, doctor.”
Doctor Eastman grunted again and walked off, carrying his patient’s chart. The inpatient ward was always bustling with activity – patients being moved on gurneys or wheeling themselves in chairs, orderlies pushing carts, nurses carrying supplies – and yet somehow Doctor Eastman navigated it all without ever looking up, as if expecting the chaos to part for him. And of course it did, it always did.
Shaking my head, I returned my attention to the computer. At least Doctor Eastman’s visit gave me with the adrenaline rush I needed to finish my shift. Who needs coffee with a coworker like him. The hospital’s software, Epic, was displayed on the screen, and I clicked on the tab to display recent admissions. It was part of my job to contact the insurance companies to verify the patient’s coverage. At the top of my worklist, the most recently admitted patient was displayed: Zissis, Mia. My name.
My name wasn’t that common, at least not outside of Greece, so I’d never seen it displayed in a system like this. It was unsettling, like a reminder that we’re all mortal. Normally I wouldn’t have clicked on the file, since nurses are trained not to snoop – like if a celebrity’s name appears in the system, don’t access it unless treating that person – but I needed to view this file anyway for the insurance information. For the second time, I froze. There was no photo under the file, but she had the same insurance company as me. Same date of birth. Same social security number. Was someone pulling a prank on me?
I went to another tab to view recent notes. The patient was a 34-year-old female admitted with head trauma following a motor vehicle collision. She was unresponsive but stable, and she was admitted at the ED pending neuro consult and imaging to evaluate the extent of her injuries.
My head was spinning so much that I’d have thought the office chair I was sitting in had been transported to a ship at sea. I had to figure out what was going on. On shaky legs, I stepped out from behind the countertop. As I started down the hallway to the room where someone with my name was admitted, I saw Doctor Eastman coming from that direction. I paused in his path and said, “Doctor, do you know anything about…?”
As usual, Doctor Eastman didn’t stop walking when something was in his path. He kept going, right through the thing in his path. Right through me. He walked through me. I turned to watch him walk away. I hadn’t felt a thing, and the doctor didn’t see me. I eyed a nearby orderly, contemplating reaching for his shoulder to see if my hand would pass through it, but I was too scared to test it.
Instead, I turned around and continued down the hallway to see what I’d find in the room where I’d reportedly been admitted. I had to see myself before I’d believe anything. I took a deep breath before entering the room. Then I located the bed, but… I didn’t recognize the person in it.
She had mousy brown curls like mine, but where my hair was tied back in a braid, hers was disheveled and her hairline was matted with blood that someone made a feeble attempt to clean. Her head was held carefully in place with a c-collar, and her face was a mess of bruises, making it was hard to distinguish her features. Even her nose appeared broken with blood crusted beneath both nostrils. She was a wreck.
Then I looked at her hands, resting on the blankets. One had an IV on the back of it and the other had a pulse monitor clipped to her finger. I held my hand beside hers for comparison. There were two freckles on the back of it, just like on mine. They were both my hands.
I lowered my trembling hand. I couldn’t make myself look at the bruised face again. My face. There were things I should be thinking about right now – what happened to me, where I was, what I was – but all I wanted was to run like a child and find a corner to hide in. I backed out of the room, clutching my face as if I could reassure myself by touching smooth skin that the bruised and bloodied mess in the bed wasn’t me.
As I hurried down the hallway, I glanced in rooms, looking for an unoccupied one where I could huddle in a ball to get my bearings. I didn’t want to sit in a room with someone else right now, regardless of if I was visible or not. I just wanted to be by myself right now.
Then a sound shook me out of my spiral, and I paused at a doorway. A child was crying. I glanced in the room; however, both beds were empty. “Hello?” I called as I entered the room, not having forgotten that Doctor Eastman couldn’t hear me. But habit wouldn’t let me rudely enter a patient’s room without greeting them. “Is anyone there?”
As expected, no one answered me, but the crying paused for a second. Just a second. Then someone sniffled. As I rounded the bed, I froze – it was like I’d walked into my mental picture of running away from something scary to hide in a corner. Now, another child was doing the same. She was a little girl with dark hair, huddling between the windows and the nightstand. Since she was wearing a gown, she was obviously a patient. And she was terrified.
I’d never felt so helpless in my job as I did now, knowing that there was a patient I couldn’t touch. Or was I just assuming that? I’d touched that keyboard after all to access records. Or maybe I’d just imagined that… I had no idea what was going on, and maybe it was insane to want to help someone when I couldn’t help myself. I had to try though. Reaching out for the red call button on the bed, I attempted to summon a nurse. But I couldn’t even do that… my fingers passed through the button, and I groaned in frustration.
I looked at the girl, expecting to see her still sniffling, her huge brown eyes fixed on my face. I glanced over my shoulder to see if someone else had entered, but we were the only ones in the room.
“Are you like me?” the girl asked.
I cleared my throat. “Hi, there. I’m not sure what you mean, sweetie.”
She reached for me, and I instinctively took her little hand in mine. We touched. The girl said, “You are like me. My body is actually in a bed in pediatrics.”
“Oh.” It was all I could think to say. I hadn’t even processed my own situation yet, so I wasn’t sure how to handle hers. But I’d felt a sense of purpose when I walked into this room to help a crying child. I didn’t need to worry about myself anymore, just her. I was a nurse, and right now I was the only nurse who could comfort this crying child. I crouched before her and said, “I’m a nurse. Mia.”
“Hi, Nurse Mia. I’m Sally,” the little girl said. She wiped the tears from her cheeks and smiled at me.
* * *
Before my accident, which I now knew had happened during my lunchbreak, my life had been a blur of long shifts, piles of paperwork, and seeing dozens of patients an hour. Things were simpler now. I had one patient, and every moment of the day was devoted to her. As far as I could tell, we were the only people haunting the hospital, so the entire building became our playground. As the people visiting and working here were blind to us, it became easy to ignore them, the chatter and activity becoming much like an ignored television playing in the background, as I focused my attention on the little girl who needed me.
There wasn’t much I could do for her. I couldn’t restart the life that’d been paused for her, but I could let her be a little girl. I could distract and play with her. We spent entire days playing hide and seek. She taught me how to play hopscotch. We looked at every single flower in the hospital’s garden. Or rather, I looked at the garden while Sally enjoyed scaring birds away. It seemed birds could see us.
Although we didn’t sleep, we still went to bed at night. First, I would brush her hair, combing it smooth with my fingertips. Then I would settle her into a bed – an empty one outside the pediatric ward since she didn’t like going there – and I’d sit on the edge of the bed. I’d recite the same stories I used to read to my little brothers. And then I’d settle down in the neighboring bed. We spent the nights watching shadows move across the walls, and I’d answer any questions that popped into her head, like where the moon goes when we can’t see it in the sky. I would tell her about the new moon and that even though we can’t see the moon sometimes, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just like us.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed since my accident. Just like when I worked too many 12-hour shifts in a row, time stopped having meaning, and the days blurred together. This routine became our lives. Or as close to life as we could have now.
Occasionally, she slipped away from me, but this too became routine. I knew where to find my patient – by the front doors of the hospital watching people leaving. It was always harder on her when a discharged patient was a little girl.
Noticing me watching her stare at a girl about her age, Sally looked up at me with tears streaking her face and she said, “It’s not fair. She gets to leave with her parents. She gets to live.” Sally roughly rubbed her cheeks dry and added, “I hope they get hit by a bus on the way home.”
I wrapped my arms around her from behind and said, “You don’t mean that. You just see how unfair this is.”
* * *
I heard her crying again.
“Sally?” I called, but she didn’t respond.
We’d been playing hide and seek, but I hadn’t found what I’d expected. She was hiding under a bed in the on-call room and wouldn’t come out. I lay down on the floor beside the bed and reached for her. I didn’t pull her out, just rested my hand on her shoulder and waited for her to be ready to turn to face me. A perk of existing between life and death is that there’s all the time in the world.
Finally, she turned her head. In the dim light, I could see the curve of a cheek glazed with tears and one of her eyes, which was wild with emotions. “What happened, sweetie?”
“You,” she whispered. “You happened. I like you. And now you’ve got to go. But I don’t want you to.”
I squeezed her shoulder. “I don’t have to go anywhere, Sally.”
“Yes, you do!” she whined. “I’ve known you could go for a while, but I didn’t want to say. But when I walked by your body’s room today, I saw your mom. I didn’t think of you as a person with a mom… She looked so sad, just like my mom. If you can go back, you should. I was selfish to keep you here.”
My hand fell from her shoulder and fell to the carpeted floor as her words stunned me. “How can we go back?” I asked. “You mean we can wake up in our bodies?”
“I said you, not we. I’ve seen it happen before. Sometimes people come here when healing. After their bodies are better, they can go back.” Sally turned away from me and her face receded into the shadows. “I can’t though… with what’s happened to me. I can’t go back. I’ve tried.”
“So, you’ll stay,” I said slowly. “And I’ll stay with you.”
Seeing me reach for her, Sally scooted further under the bed. The only light that touched her was a shine that lit her eyes. “No,” she snapped. “You won’t. You’ll go back.”
“If this is about my mom…” I started, unsure how to finish the sentence. I missed my mother fiercely, but I could put a stopper on my emotions for her.
“It’s not,” Sally said. “You’re a nurse, and there’s other people who need you. I can’t keep you all to myself. So, go. Go back. Go now. Before I change my mind.”
“You’re not making sense,” I said, not feeling the same urgency. I could see an evening of brushing her hair and reading a story, and we could talk about this tomorrow. I grabbed for her again, but she evaded my clutching fingers.
“I said now. Go!” Sally shouted. “You’re my friend, Nurse Mia. I want you to live. Go away. Please.”
“If that’s what you want…” I wiped my cheeks to dry them. Duty made me want to stay, but a primal urge to live kept me moving. As I got up, I whispered, “I’ll come back for you, Sally.”
She didn’t say anything. If she’d tried to stop me, I would have stayed. I would have stayed with her forever. But after a minute, walked away and down the hallway to the room with my body. I thought more about duty as I walked. Life is a series of obligations – loyalty to loved ones, service to a job, but there was also what we owe to ourselves. And I owed it to myself to live again.
As I entered, I didn’t even look at my mother. Instead, I looked at myself. The bruises on my head had healed. My hair was longer and tied in a lose tail. My wrists had thinned with the prominent bones. It’d be hard to recover, after my body had deteriorated in my mind’s absence. But I wanted to be Mia Zissis again. I took my hand.
* * *
Doctor Eastman paused and blinked when he saw me in the hallway. “Nurse Zissis, what’re you doing here?”
“Just visiting.” I smiled. It was good to be seen.
He shook his head. “If I’d been a patient for several months, this hospital would be the last place I would visit.”
I held up the box in my arms. “I brought cookies. I had to say thank you.”
“I’ll be sure to try one,” the doctor said, before returning his attention to a chart.
My first stop was the nurse’s station, where I dropped off the box of cookies after hugging and thanking as many coworkers as I could find. They’d taken good care of me, and I loved them for it.
But they weren’t the only reason I’d come today. After a thorough visit answering questions about my physical therapy, recovery, and when I’d be back to work, I extracted myself from the conversation. My right coat pocket was weighed down by a book, and I headed to pediatrics. This wasn’t the ward where I worked, but it didn’t take me long to find her bed. Sally was the only person in this room of a long-care ward, and the white sheets were bright against her dark hair which was fanned out against the pillow. It was odd to see her face, which I’d become accustomed to seeing twisted with intense emotions, appearing so slack now.
This was just her body. I looked around the room, hoping that the piece of her that could see me, might be here also. I sat down in the chair beside her bed and pulled the book out of my pocket. It wasn’t one of the stories I’d recited from memory, but I hoped she would like it. I started to read, “Chapter One. How nobody came to the graveyard.”
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