was a twenty-year-old nursing student in 1968, preparing for a rotation through
the pediatric unit. Compared to cardiac units or the operating room, how
hard would this be? After all, I'd always cared for and played with
children. This rotation would be a snap. I'd breeze right through it
and be one step closer to graduation.
Chris was an eight-year-old bundle of energy who excelled in every sport he played. Disobeying his parents' instructions, he explored a neighbor's construction site, climbed a ladder and fell. His broken arm was casted too tightly, leading to infection, sepsis and gangrene. Sadly, his condition required amputation.
I was assigned as his postoperative nurse.
The first few days passed quickly. I provided Chris's physical care with forced cheerfulness. His parents stayed with him around the clock.
As his need for medication decreased, his level of awareness increased, as did his moodiness. When I saw how alert he seemed as he watched me bring in supplies for a sponge bath, I offered him the washcloth and suggested he take over. He washed his face and neck, then quit. I finished.
The next day, I announced he'd be in charge of his whole bath. He balked. I insisted. He was more than halfway through when he slumped down and said, "I'm too tired."
"You won't be in the hospital much longer," I urged gently. "You need to learn to take care of yourself."
"Well, I can't," he scowled. "How can I do anything with just one hand?"
Putting on my brightest face, I groped for a silver lining. Finally I said, "Sure you can do it, Chris. At least you have your right hand."
He turned his face away and muttered, "I'm left-handed. At least I used to be." He glared at me. "Now what?"
Suddenly, I didn't feel so snappy. I felt phony and insincere, and not very helpful. How could I have taken right-handedness for granted? It seemed he and I both had a lot to learn.
The next morning I greeted Chris with a big smile and a rubber band. He looked at me suspiciously. Wrapping the rubber band loosely around my wrist, I said, "You're left-handed and I'm right-handed. I am going to put my right hand behind my back and keep it there by winding the rubber band around my uniform buttons. Every time I ask you to do something with your right hand, I will do it first, with my left hand. And I promise not to practice before I see you. What should we try first?"
"I just woke up," he grumbled. "I need to brush my teeth."
I managed to screw the top off the toothpaste, then placed his toothbrush on the overbed table. Awkwardly, I tried to squirt toothpaste onto the wobbly toothbrush. The harder I struggled, the more interested he became. After almost ten minutes, and a lot of wasted toothpaste, I succeeded.
"I can do it faster than that!" Chris declared. And when he did, his triumphant grin was just as real as mine.
The next two weeks passed quickly. We tackled his daily activities with enthusiasm and a competitive spirit. We buttoned his shirts, buttered his bread and never really mastered tying his shoes. Despite our age difference, we were playing a game as equal competitors.
By the time my rotation ended, he was almost ready for discharge, and ready to face the world with more confidence. We hugged each other good-bye with sincere friendship and tears.
More than thirty years have passed since our time together. I've encountered some ups and downs in my life, but I've never let a physical challenge pass without thinking of Chris and wondering how he would cope. Sometimes I put a hand behind my back, hook my thumb in my belt and give it a try.
And anytime I feel sorry for myself, for some petty grievance or another, I take myself into the bathroom and try once again to brush my teeth with my left hand.