It was one of those typically spring mornings in a north London suburb, with slivers of sunlight desperately trying to break through dense cloud. Marissa Samson walked the short distance from the nurses’ home to the grey Victorian building. She was a Rubenesque eighteen-year-old with Afro hair, almond eyes staring out of an impish pixie face, and plum coloured lips. When she smiled she looked like a dental advertisement, as her evenly spaced teeth flashed in a radiant arch. She had been deemed competent after the ritual of the 6 weeks’ preliminary nurse training, and her rite of passage into the State Registered Nursing certificate had begun.
Marissa had been assigned to Lazarus, the male medical ward and she felt apprehensive. The charge nurse of Lazarus, an angular woman, Sister Hennessey was likened to the harpy in Greek mythology. In the nurses’ canteen, Dragon Hennessey’s waspish, acerbic wit and temperament were attributed to a fondness for whiskey, which she imbibed in the secrecy of the sisters’ quarters. She used it as a sort of coping mechanism to deal with initiating junior nurses into the routine of a medical ward with acute and chronic illnesses and insufficient senior nurses to mentor the students.
Marissa walked into the dragon’s den with optimism and feigned courage.
“Good Morning, Sister Hennessey. I am Nurse Samson. Sister Cavanagh, the Clinical Nurse Tutor, said I was to report to you.”
She stood in the minimal space of Sister Hennessey’s office doorway expecting some form of acknowledgment, preamble or orientation before being thrown into the duties expected of a first-year nurse.
Sister Hennessey did not look up from the duty roster she was working on.
“Well, Nurse Samson, you can assist Staff Nurse Jones prepare Mr Cavendish the cardiac patient. His relatives have been informed. He is in cubicle 13, down the corridor. Don’t forget, Nurse Samson, to get a basin and some fresh linen for the bed bath. The linen cupboard is on the right, and the sluice room on your left at the end of the corridor.”
Nurse Samson’s optimism and energetic smile, especially first thing in the morning, irritated Sister Hennessy. The duties of a charge sister on a medical ward with acute and chronic cases were not without challenges. She blamed the hospital hierarchy who failed to comprehend she required more senior staff to assist the constant stream of preliminary trained student nurses who required supervision in the mundane tasks of bed baths, administering medication, injections and resuscitation techniques. She remembered a time when she had been passionate about nursing. Looking up from the duty roster she was working on, she saw the look of utter incomprehension on the young student nurse’s face.
“You’ll soon learn the ropes, Nurse Samson. Throw them in the deep end, I always
say. Now run along.”
Marissa felt the cold grey fingers of fear curl round her abdomen as she frantically searched
the corridor for the linen room and grabbed towels, face cloth and a large stainless steel wash bowl from the sluice room, which smelt of urine, bile and disinfectant. In the preliminary nurse training sessions Marissa and the student nurses had joked and laughed as they performed bed baths and practiced giving injections to a life-sized dummy they nicknamed Mrs Malady. She was not sure how she would cope with a bed bath on an adult male. She entered the darkened cubicle and found Staff Nurse Jones waiting, her arms crossed tightly over her starched apron.
“Nurse Samson, I presume. Tardiness will not be tolerated, Nurse.”
Marissa ignored Staff Nurse’s sarcasm and focused her mind on the bed bath routine: Introduce yourself to the patient. Establish rapport. Be confident. Have equipment and linen all set up. Start with the face, work systematically and maintain professional chatter without drowning patient.
Mr Cavendish stripped, of his striped grey flannel pajamas, was stretched out like a waxed figure under a white hospital sheet. Looks almost like Mrs Malady the practice dummy, Marissa thought, as she put the clean linen onto the bedside locker. She grabbed the stainless steel basin to get some hot water from the sluice room. She stopped to look at Mr Cavendish again. He did not look good at all. Waxworks from Madam Tussaud’s would look more alive, she mused.
Mr Cavendish had departed this mortal world in the early hours of the morning.
“Oh my God! He’s dead,” Marissa exclaimed.
“How observant, Nurse Samson” replied Staff Nurse Jones in a deadpan voice.
Marissa felt stupid and inadequate.
“But! But! Sister Hennessey didn’t tell me I was to prepare a body for the mortuary,” she spluttered.
She had never seen a dead body before. Memories from horror movies and superstitions about zombies resurfaced. Don’t be silly, she chided herself. Overcoming her fear with a pasted smile, Marissa turned to Staff Nurse Jones.
“Where do we start?”
It was like a red rag to a bull.
Staff Nurse Jones barked, “For a start you can take the stupid grin off your face. You wash and I’ll dry. We have twenty minutes, Nurse Samson. I presume you are aware that other duties await: administer insulin injections, record blood pressure, urinalysis, cardiac monitor graphs – as well as serve breakfast to all the patients this morning? Now, get a move on.”
Marissa, feeling utterly confused about where to start, stood looking vacantly at Mr Cavendish.
“For God’s sake, nurse, show some initiative. The soap is in the locker by the bed,”
Marissa bent down to look into the locker that seemed to contain the universe: dirty laundry,
medication bottles, books and a battered tin, but no soap. Her movements became more
frantic as she negotiated the crowded space between the bed frames, the bedside trolley, hospital paraphernalia and the stalwart locker, which reminded her of equipment out of the chronicles of history. She located the soap in the recesses of the locker and was just about to grab it when she felt the deadweight of Mr Cavendish’s waxen hand slap her hard across her ample bottom. For the first time that morning Marissa heard Staff’s loud laughter
“There is life in the old dog yet,” Staff Nurse said.
Marissa uttered an ear-shattering shriek before passing out onto the cold floor.
The senior nurse’s hilarity however turned to exasperation when the silly young nurse just sat looking dazed and scared out of her skin.
“Come on, Nurse Samson, pull yourself together. Enough of this nonsense.” Staff
Nurse admonished her in her crisp colonial accent.
She offered a scientific rationale for the slap administered by the dead patient on Marissa’s
derrière. He was not an amorous cadaver. Rigor mortis had set in. It was all due to the
physics of movement. The dead weight of the patient’s hand had slid off the starched, slippery, cotton sheet. It was sheer coincidence that Marissa had happened to be bending down. It had nothing to do with a corpse exhibiting zombie-like behaviour.
“Stop looking like a stunned mullet, Nurse Samson. We have to prepare the body for
Marissa was in no mood to be bullied. Her West Indian temper flared. She looked at Staff
Nurse Jones, the darkened room, and Mr Cavendish’s waxen corpse. She could have sworn he winked at her.
“I’m not staying. No way, Staff Nurse Jones. I am getting out of here. I am going back
to waitressing. And let me tell you this, Staff Nurse. In the hospitality industry, the clients
may get fresh. But you know something? They are alive, not dead. I can deal with the living.
And you know something else, Staff Nurse Jones? I am not sure I want to work in a place
where there is more life in the dead than in the living!”
Marissa stormed out of the cubicle and strode down the corridor into Charge Sister
Hennessey’s sacrosanct office. She grabbed her bag and her red cape and walked out through the long dark corridor. Outside the Victorian hospital tepid sunlight filtered through the skeletal branches of the trees promising spring.
Maybe tomorrow she will be back.
Bhama Daly was born in Kuala Lumpur. New horizons beckoned and, in the 1970s, she pursued a career in nursing in London. She migrated to Cairns with her husband Simon in 1978. They have two sons. Bhama’s career has embraced not only nursing but also academic work at the University of Queensland and the James Cook University, Cairns. Her research and writing are informed by stories, myths and legends and the way in which they provide explanations for being in the world. Bhama’s interests include writing, reading, Yoga, Tai Chi, Zumba and, a topic of endless procrastination, how not to write the best-selling novel.