Friday, June 1, 2018

A nurse's stories reveal the heart of medicine

By Louise Kinross

I just finished The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Stories of Life, Death and Hope and I can't get the images of author Christie Watson's British patients out of my head.

There is Betty, a frail old woman lying on a hospital stretcher with chest pains, following the recent death of her husband. After getting her a sandwich and a cup of tea, Christie holds her "paper-thin hand," closes her eyes and listens to her talk about her youth, till Christie is watching "a young woman in a dress made of parachute silk dancing with her new husband..."

There is the 14-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis that Christie readies for a new set of lungs. She wets his lips with a sponge in sterile water, and takes his Game Boy, swearing "to guard it with my life." When the porter comes to take him to the operating room, he turns to ask if she'll be with him. "The whole time," she tells him. "I'll be there."

There is Jasmine, the 12-year-old girl on a ventilator and dying, after a house fire. Her brother is nearby, also on a ventilator. Their mother has died. When an aunt arrives, the doctor explains the severity of Jasmine's injury and that they need to "let nature take its course."

The aunt doesn't understand. "Let nature take its course?" she asks Christie, confused.

"She is dying," Christie says.

"Jasmine's aunt is too shocked to hear a narrative," she explains to the reader. "She needs blunt, quick information to break through the shock."

Then, before bringing the aunt in to see her niece, Christie and another nurse tenderly wash the girl's hair, to remove the overpowering smell of smoke. "Smelling the lingering smoke will surely make it worse for Jasmine's aunt," she writes. "Sometimes, not making it worse, is all we can do."

There are nurses who work a night-shift, then travel two hours to the funeral of Samuel, a premature baby they've cared for. They've been up for 21 hours, Christie notes.

One of the nurses, Christie writes, has been at Samuel's bedside round the clock for months, singing to him, holding his hand and stroking his hair. Christie recalls watching her pull a container of bubbles from her pocket, then blow them gently above Samuel, popping them one by one, as he kicked his legs.

Christie writes largely in the present tense. In her poetic and philosophical bookwhich weaves in history, science, architecture and social commentaryshe brings the hospital alive with vivid descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of each unit, and the complex characters who are her patients, their families and her co-workers. "Nursing is a career that demands chunks of your soul on a daily basis," she writes.

This book shows clearly why nurses, who spend the most time with patients, are in a unique position to provide not just physical and medical care, but emotional support, in a flexible, non-judgmental way that honours a patient's story and helps them feel heard and understood.

I listened to this as an audio book that Christie reads, and it was captivating.