June 1973 – Midwest, USA
My sister, Marsha, and I graduated from nursing school and I graduated from high school on exactly the same day and time. Since I didn’t want to split up the family, I volunteered to skip my high school graduation. Marsha let me wear her white high school mortarboard and gown for the photos our Dad took of us. She looked beautiful in her white cap and nurse’s dress uniform walking down the aisle of the hospital auditorium with her fifty classmates.
We both were hired to work at a nursing home in the country a few miles from our home. Marsha will be the evening charge nurse, and I will work night shift as a nursing assistant. There is no night shift nurse for the fifty patients since none of them need to be given medicine at night. There will be one other nursing assistant with me. I’m nervous about working there, but I have to start somewhere. I will work ten nights straight for $1.25 per hour and then be off four days. I can hardly believe I will make fifty dollars each week. I have never had that much money before.
First Night Shift – 11 p.m.
“Pam, they asked me to orient you tonight, so this is what we do,” said Vera, a middle-aged plump lady who had a heavy southern accent. “First we wrap fifty sets of silverware in paper napkins for breakfast for all the patients. Then we make the first diaper rounds which we do every two hours. It’s easier if we make rounds together to help turn them. Then we each give four bed baths to the ones who don’t know the difference between night and day. Then we make diaper rounds again followed by a 30-minute lunch break. We’re allowed to eat anything we want in the refrigerator!”
“After lunch, we each mop one of the patient lounges and straighten them up. Then we do diaper rounds again. At 5 a.m. we fill each patient’s water pitcher with fresh ice water. After we give our report to the day shift, we go home.”
I began to do exactly as Vera showed me. I have never changed a baby’s diaper much less an adult. Our first patient, Sam, was difficult to roll to one side because he was so stiff from advanced Parkinson’s disease. He could no longer talk. He stared at us with his big sad brown eyes. I held him on his side while Vera washed him and put a clean diaper on him. We collected the soiled cloth diaper in a special bag for the laundry company that would pick them up tomorrow.
I never gave a bed bath before either. Vera told me to take off his top sheet and gown, wash his face, then go down one side of his body and up the other side with the washcloth, rinse, dry him off and put on a new gown and top sheet. I felt sorry for Sam as he shivered.
I was exhausted when I walked out the door into the morning sun and fresh air. I climbed on my bicycle and wearily pedaled five miles up and down hills past corn fields glistening with dew. I rode up our gravel driveway, said hello to Mom, ate breakfast, and went outside to our quiet travel trailer to try and sleep for eight hours. I hoped I wouldn’t hear the rest of the family this way. “Thank You, dear Lord, for carrying me through this first night shift in the nursing home. Please give me deep sleep now. Amen.” I fell into bed after being awake for twenty-four hours.
When I started nursing school a year later, the professor demonstrated the correct way to give a bed bath. She showed us how you uncover only one part of the body at a time to prevent shivering and preserve as much of the patient’s modesty as possible. Staff development was definitely lacking at the small unskilled nursing home. But being a nursing assistant was a great introduction to the nursing profession. It was a difficult job physically, so it forced any romantic notions I had about nursing right out of my head. After I graduated and began supervising nursing assistants, I had great compassion for all the hard work they did for low wages. I always tried to pitch in and help them after finishing my work which helped foster teamwork.
During the 1980’s, I worked in a 1000 bed hospital in staff development. We asked the nurse managers to complete a survey about how their new graduate nurses were functioning after one year of employment. The BSN graduates who worked summers as nursing assistants were rated the highest. I thank God for faithfully guiding me right from the beginning of my career.
“I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go; I will guide thee with mine eye” (Psalm 32:8 KJV).