I was in my second year of nurse's training at Children's Hospital when I fell in love with Jimmy. His eyes were the purple of a full-moon sky. His golden hair tossed rings of curls onto strawberry blush cheeks. He looked like a cherub in the stained-glass cathedral windows. But he had the wail of a lonely, frightened, orphaned baby, which he was.
Jimmy was in the communicable diseases wing, isolated with measles and pneumonia. He had to be enclosed in his oxygen-tent-covered crib most of the time. When he wasn't sleeping, he was crying to get out. But he always stopped crying when I entered his room because he knew I would cuddle, rock and sing to him. The Children's Orphanage had been his only home most of his fifteen months of life. I knew he was well tended there, but no institution care can replace a mother's love. As I hummed a lullaby, I fantasized. "Jimmy, I promise you that as soon as I finish nursing school, I will find a way to become your full-time mommy. You will be my special little angel."
My mind eagerly formed wedding plans for right after graduation. The man I married would just have to love this beautiful baby as much as I did.
The door opened a crack. My supervisor hissed, "Miss White! Have you completed all of your work and finished charting?"
"Almost, Miss Stickleby."
"It's nearly time to go off duty. Put the baby down now. Check on your other patients, and then go help Miss Nelson. I believe she had an extra patient today." The door closed before I could answer. Suzie Nelson did not have an extra patient. I did. Suzie was assigned as Jimmy's nurse, but I asked to have him added to my patient load. I wanted the extra time with him since I'd be on vacation the next three days.
Deliberately, I dawdled, massaging his thin little legs, playing peek-a-boo with his yellow ducky blanket, urging gurgling giggles between his raspy breaths. He was more responsive and playful than I'd seen him before, and his grasp was stronger. A good sign of improving condition.
A loud tap rattled the ward window. Stickleby.
Quickly, I gave Jimmy his favorite squeaky bear and an extra farewell backrub. As his eyelids closed over his pansy eyes, I tucked the oxygen tent around his crib and whispered good-bye.
Back at the nurse's station, Miss Stickleby glared as I signed off Jimmy's chart. Who was she anyway? I wondered. We students couldn't fault her as a teacher and supervisor. She saw to it that we were all as conscientious in our duties as she was. But although the hospital policy encouraged staff and students to hold, play with, read and talk to all the children in our care, we never saw her cooing over a baby or reading to a toddler. By the end of the shift, our pink student uniforms were always rumpled and damp. Miss Stickleby's looked as starched and clean as at the start of the day. Unlike my netted unruly locks, no wisps of auburn hair escaped from under her square pillbox nurse cap. She was such a proper, capable nurse. Why did she hide her heart?
I waved good-bye to Jimmy's room as I hurried off duty, excited to have a mountain of fun. But at the same time, I was eager to return to my bright-eyed, nearly recovered Jimmy.
While on vacation, I bought several silly, washable toys for "my little guy." He had only the disposable ones given by the local children's societies. Before he went back to the orphanage, everything would be burned, of course, to prevent cross-contamination.
Holiday over, I rushed back to work and eagerly peeked through Jimmy's window on my way to the ward station. His crib was clean and empty.
"Where did you move Jimmy?" I asked the night nurse.
"Oh, he died Saturday night. Didn't you know?" Such a casual answer.
My body turned to clabbered milk. I fell into the chair, crushing the toy bag.
"I'm sorry, Joy. He was such a special little kid." She released a long, exhausted sigh. "Saturday night was a bad night."
Beyond consolation, I stumbled into the nurse's lounge where I could release a great wash of tears.
"Miss White!" It was Stickleby's clipped, stern voice. "Time for report. Dry your eyes and get on duty. Now, please."
All of the emotion I felt for Jimmy poured out like boiling oil over this cold, unfeeling woman.
"How can you be so uncaring?" I yelled. "It's bad enough that Jimmy's beautiful little life is snuffed out, but he didn't even have a mama to comfort him or to care that he died. And you? Do you care about him or any other little life? No! Just, 'Miss White, go to work. Pretend everything is the same.' Well, it isn't the same. I care! I loved that little boy!"
Tears spattered down the front of my uniform.
A handkerchief dropped onto my wet lap. I felt a soft touch on my shoulder. Miss Stickleby stood at my side, teardrops softening her stiff uniform.
"Miss White – Joy," her voice was a husky whisper. "There are far too many Jimmys in our profession. They can wreck our hearts if we let them. You and I are jelly hearts. We will always be searching for ways to cope. One thing I know for sure is that we must give equal attention to each child. To single out one child can destroy us and can limit our ability to be an effective nurse."
She blotted her face. "It may give you comfort to know that Jimmy did not die alone. Death took him softly from my arms."
We sat together for a brief time, the seasoned jelly-hearted teacher and the green jelly-hearted student, crying.
Then we put on our fresh nurse faces and went out to love and care for all the little children in our charges.