December 20, 2010 by The Citron Review
by Winona Wendth
The vessels at her temples pulsed. Pressure, then pain. Then submission: The nurse found someone to replace the catheter in Room 402 and finish her shift. She signed out.
She left seven ICU patients napping through a mechanical symphony of beeps and hisses: two geriatric women taking their few remaining labored breaths; a middle-aged mother with internal injuries from a reported downstairs fall; a couple of old men with failing kidneys; a cheer leader with multiple pelvic fractures from getting into her father’s gin, then her mother’s Pontiac, and then driving "very slowly into tree."
And she walked away from Frank Oliviera: MRSA. Forty-something. Big, tanned. Manicured. Immaculately clean at home, she guessed, but dying from germs here. He had signed in for a routine procedure on his toe and ended up flat on his back, his foot and ankle fat and swollen, the rest of his body sprouting tubes. A minor post-op infection run amok.
He had been wheeled into her care a week before, bringing with him a haze of musk and summer grass, rising from the folds of his robe. Now, the room reeked of Viraguard and whatever it was that the orderlies used that smelled like Mr. Clean.
For a while, Frank had been well enough to cause trouble.
"Hey, Nurse . . . You know what? That water mark up there looks like a rabbit: Look!"
She had turned and looked into the corner of the ceiling. He grabbed her buttocks and squeezed.
Three days later, weaker, in a whisper: "Hey . . . Look at that bird near the window."
The nurse turned, stretching her torso across his bed toward the window. He grabbed her breast, then cupped it in his palm. She took Frank’s wrist, pushed it down to his side, and patted it in place. Jagged blue peaks and valleys on the cardiac monitor pulled together. A mental note: a slight increase in heart rate. Not a bad sign, really.
"Mr. Oliviera, you have to stop that."
Four days after that, Frank lay quiet, his shoulders elevated, a PICC line pumping a further course of antibiotics, a double-pronged oxygen tube in his nose. A catheter. Machinery beeped, hooshed, tracked. Tracked his heat, tracked his heart, tracked whatever remained of his life. He seemed to be diminishing daily, a shrinking man held inside an engorged swollen body.
Soon, he couldn’t sit up. His silk robe hung unused next to the bed. A pair of kidskin slippers, stained with whatever it was that was not Mr. Clean, had lost partnership and had been pushed around by the orderlies under the bed. He continued to swell as he continued to diminish. Then, he started to deflate and soften. She had seen these cases shrivel to death. She was not much over five feet tall, but her patients always seemed smaller than she when they died.
That afternoon, while she was monitoring, stabilizing, refilling, or recording something, the nurse heard a whisper:
She leaned into his shoulder to hear better.
She put an open hand against the side of Frank’s face and neck. With the other, she took his hand and held it.
"No. Please." He put her hand on his lap. "Please."
The nurse pulled back, then stopped. Why not? He probably won’t live, and even if he did, he wouldn’t remember. She glanced into the hallway. No one. Four-thirty: too early for after-dinner visitors, doctors had already made rounds.
"Please," he said again.
She lay her hand on his lap and felt for him.
“Here. I’ll help you, Frank. Look at the rabbit.” She moved her hands under the blanket and slowly removed the catheter.
She knew his groin was nearly bloodless. Warmth came from fever, not turgidity. She lingered when she thought she felt him move, but like the autonomic smile of the brain dead, a short spasm meant nothing. She laid her other hand on his forehead. Frank closed his eyes and exhaled. She leaned farther into him. He inhaled as though he were breathing fresh air. And then he fell asleep.
Her head began to pound.
The nurse looked at the rabbit on the ceiling, then at the monitor’s digital blue time. Ten to five: another two hours on shift.
Winona Winkler Wendth lives and teaches writing and literature near Boston. Her work has appeared in Spectrum Magazine, Third Coast, Moon Milk Review, Left Hand Waving, The Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine, and Hektoen International, A Journal of Medicine and Humanities, among other places. Her essay Strapless was listed as a Notable Essay in America’s Best Essays: 2010; her essay Body Heat was noted as a Good Read at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2010. Wendth holds an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars.