June 1973 – Midwest, USA
My sister, Marsha, 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 50 classmates.
A nursing home in the country near our home hired both of us for the summer. Marsha will be the evening charge nurse, and I will work night shift as a nursing assistant. No nurse works there at night since none of the patients need medicine then. One other nursing assistant will work with me. I’m a little scared, but I have to start somewhere. I will work ten nights straight for $1.25 per hour and then have four days off. I can hardly believe I will earn $50 each week, a huge amount for me.
First Night Shift – 11 p.m.
“Pam, they asked me to orient you tonight, so this is what we do,” drawled Vera, a plump middle-aged lady. “First we wrap 50 sets of silverware in paper napkins for the patients’ breakfast. Then we make the first diaper rounds together. Next 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 and straighten one of the patient lounges. Then we do diaper rounds again. At 5 a.m. we fill each patient’s pitcher with fresh ice water. After we report to the day shift at 7 a.m., we go home.”
I began to do exactly as Vera showed me. I had 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 but just 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 put the soiled cloth diaper in a special bag for the laundry company to collect in the morning.
To give Sam a bed bath, 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 him as he shivered.
At 7 a.m., I wearily walked out the door into the sunshine and took a deep breath of the fresh air. I climbed on my bicycle and pedaled five miles home up and down hills past corn fields glistening with dew. I pushed my bike 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 24 hours.
When I started nursing school a year later, the professor demonstrated the correct way to give a bed bath. She showed us how to 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 didn’t exist at the small unskilled nursing home. But my time as a nursing assistant gave me a great introduction to my profession. The physical labor forced any romantic notions out of my head. After I graduated and began supervising nursing assistants, it gave me 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 also fostered teamwork.
During the 1980s, 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 functioned after one year of employment. They rated the BSN graduates who worked summers as nursing assistants the highest by far. So 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