My Nurse Mentors
So, never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small, for it is wonderful how
often in such matters the mustard seed germinates and roots itself. ...Florence
This article originally appeared in All Nursing 2003
My professor of English Literature at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore,
Maryland endorsed, “The mark of a genius is humility.” While I am certainly no genius I would
like to humbly submit this tribute to my nurse-mentors who took their time to train me. These are but a few.
Memory fades with the years. My journaling should have been more conscientious. Here are only a few of those wonderful nursing caregivers that I can recall and now I would
like to honor.
In my junior year of medical school at the
Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, Missouri I had to learn and I did learn to start
intravenous fluid lines. When I mastered getting the needle into the vein in one smooth, swift minimally painful
stick I still could not tear adhesive tape so I could not easily secure the needle in place. I suggested to my
then somewhat condescending intern that I carry scissors and I was haughtily told in his sneering, condescending
tone of voice, “No doctor carries scissors. You have just got to learn to tear adhesive tape or you can not be a
Well, for sure I wanted to be a doctor so I
strained and struggled until finally a nurse made the time to teach me the following, “Hold the adhesive tape
between the thumbs and forefingers of each hand; then put your knuckles together; then put your thumbs on your
knuckles, and then separate your wrists!” And that was it. Instantly I became an expert. I trotted about happily
volunteering to start additional intravenous fluid lines confident in my newfound ability to tear adhesive tape.
Nothing could have been simpler. It is my shame that I do not recall her name, but her method of tearing tape
remains with me to this day. And now, in this writing, I thank her. I thought of her respectfully and I thank
her each and every time I tear adhesive tape.
In my senior year of medical school I was admitting a patient with his upper
gastrointestinal bleeding. The intravenous line with normal saline was established. Blood was drawn for type and
cross match. His nasogastric tube was in place. As the nurse and I were smoothly working as a team admitting the
patient a Roman Catholic Priest entered the room. I was dumfounded. I turned to the nurse and as I began to
voice my dismay she firmly took my arm and started for the hallway. I realized that my arm was going out of the
room and if I wanted to keep my arm I had better follow it and follow her. In the hallway she gently but firmly
explained that, “In the care of any and all seriously sick patients, including but not limited to Roman
Catholic patients it is correct and appropriate to provide the sacrament known then as the
last rites or extreme unction now known as the sacrament of the sick or equivalent in the event of any acute
illness that might unpredictably further deteriorate and progress to the demise of the patient!” Not being
myself a Roman Catholic: and, not having had myself any instruction in spirituality in my medical school years,
I listened carefully and learned much.
Through my years I have always inquired if my patients or their families or significant
others want a visit by clergy. When the answer is,
“Yes doctor,” I have telephoned imams, and/or priests, and/or ministers, and/or rabbis personally and directly
and I have documented these telephone calls to clergy in the chronological record of medical care of my
patients. In time I have endeavored to educate my marginally literate hospital ancillary personnel who have
written in ink in the chronological records of patient care thus, “Priest visited and gave the patient the last
rights (sic)!” In time I have become more acquainted with the process and I have accepted my community theater
role of Padre` Perez (wearing both my wig and my medieval eighteen-inch wood cross) that provided me the
opportunity to administer the last rites on stage, that I chanted (and can still chant even now) in classical
Latin accompanied by a bassoon for Don Quixote de la Mancha in our fifteen performances of our Jonesborough
Repertory Theater performance of “Man of La Mancha!”
Nevertheless, giving credit where credit is
due, my initial understanding of the importance of clerical visitation of critically ill and potentially
critically ill patients came from a dedicated, educated, kind, gracious nurse. Again I take this opportunity to
thank her and again I apologize respectfully to her for not even remembering her name.
In my internship, I was privileged to meet and
learn from the best of the best of my nursing mentors. She was a married Asian-Pacific-Islander with a
pre-school child. Her dedication was such that she chose to leave her family each afternoon to work the evening
shift of our emergency room. And that is where I was fortunate to meet her. I do remember her name but I
withhold it out of respect to protect her privacy and confidentiality. Her chosen “abbreviation and/or
anglicanization” of her name was, “Mitzi.” It was the name she went by. It was the name we used in the hustle
and bustle of our emergency room. We knew her by no other name. She was the best of the best.
When a patient with acute left ventricular
failure with pulmonary edema would arrive in our emergency room gasping for breath Mitzi would say, “Oxygen
doctor?” We would answer, “Yes.” Then Mitzi would give the oxygen and say, “Intravenous morphine doctor?” We
would answer, “Yes.” Then Mitzi would administer the intravenous morphine and so on and so forth. Similarly
with: diuretics, rotating tourniquets, the 12-lead electrocardiogram, and acute hospitalization. We had no
intensive care unit but we had Mitzi and our patients did well.
All of the staff physicians recognized the
skills of Mitzi. If and when a patient would come in with ankle trauma the bone-and-joint specialists would
endorse, “Have Mitzi look at the x-ray and then call me.” To the best of my knowledge and recollection, Mitzi
was never honored or otherwise officially recognized by either our medical staff or our house staff. Mitzi
was never given any awards, plaques, dinners out, letters of appreciation, letters of commendation and so on and
so forth. Why not? Could it have been that the physicians, both attending staff and house staff were ashamed of
admitting just how much they learned from Mitzi and just how much they depended on Mitzi?
And what became of Mitzi? Did she receive the outstanding care that she taught us to
provide when she herself became unwell? Mitzi was herself hospitalized with unrelenting, never-ending,
round-the-clock chest pain. In those dark ages, now decades ago, imaging was in its infancy. The chest x-rays
were reported as negative. The laboratory data was unrevealing. I can still see and hear the chief-of-medicine,
speaking in his deep voice and surrounded by his acolytes, waving his hand in the hallway outside her room and
endorsing, “Aside from the small probability of malignancy...”
Matters came to a crisis when some
well-meaning provider wrote on Mitzi’s scut sheet (list of things to get done), “Get a psychiatry consult,”
that, in those days of stereotyping mental health professionals and stereotyping mental illness (has that
changed?) deeply wounded Mitzi. In those dark days before patient’s rights, Mitzi was not supposed to see her
scut sheet which was to be tossed (shredded?) and not to be, never ever to be, a permanent portion of her
chronological record of medical care, but Mitzi, being perceptive, and knowing about scut sheets, albeit gravely
ill, somehow did get to see her scut sheet.
Finally she demanded and got a medical oncology consultant who performed a needle
biopsy of the inner lining of her chest and documented pathologically a spreading malignant cancer, primary site
undetermined. At last Mitzi, under a sentence of virtually certain death, now knowing the reason for her
relentless chest pain, achieved a measure of peace. Was it the irony of her life that she who not only gave so
much to the treatment and care of untold numbers of patients and trained untold numbers of interns when she was
ill she was dealt with in a strange manner? Mitzi lives now in my memory. May she rest in peace and may her
memory always be for a blessing.
Please accept my appreciation for my meager and imperfect endeavor to voice my humble and respectful
appreciation of all of my nurse-mentors.
Thanks Mitzi! God-bless! God-speed! God’s-Grace!
1. Cohen, I.B. “The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life,” W. H. Norton,
2006. Chapter 9 is devoted to Florence Nightingale.