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“Just grab the head and don’t let go,” the nurse barked at me. “And the rest of the body will come along. “

I hesitated, frightened.

“Just grab it, will you?” The nurse barked louder. “I can assure you it won’t fall off.”

It was the summer of 1959. I was seventeen years old and working a few shifts in the children’s building of my first psychiatric hospital job. I usually worked geriatrics, so these children, with all of their oddities, freaked me out. This child was about two years old with hydrocephalus. The first child I’d ever seen with this. This was before the days of surgical procedures to drain spinal fluid after birth to prevent the enlargement of the head.

I was standing next to a chrome bathing table, and I was supposed to slide this child from the water source down the chrome slide to dry her. I had no idea how to hold her. Her small blue eyes, dwarfed by a large protruding forehead and a swollen football-sized head, pleaded with me to be careful. I can still see her eyes. They seemed to say: “Don’t treat me like a bath object. I’m me. I have a name. I am a person. I’m someone who needs love even though I look like a freak.”

Right then and there, I made up my mind that I’d never be a pediatric nurse. I knew I could not stand the pain of helpless children in pain.

I defied the nurse and gently cradled this watermelon-like head in my left arm and cupped my hand under her buttocks. I talked into her eyes, not knowing if she understood. I turned my back on the nurse as I carried the child back to her crib. I shuddered in horror how this child, deformed through no fault of her own, was at the mercy of nurses shuttling babies down a chrome bath table like an assembly line. I hurt badly that day, for the first time. This was no way to treat a human being. Intrinsically, without any nurses’ training yet, I knew that treatment of  a patient like this was wrong. There was no evidence of compassion here. No role model for me to learn.

How does one “learn” compassion as a nurse? I see compassion as selfless empathy, feeling with and for the client. I’d like to think I had some innate capacity for compassion after I tended my baby doll and the three baby dolls of my older sisters while they were off to high school and college. So my heart was big and waiting to be shown the “how to’s” by a nurse.

In the geriatric building I had such a nurse..(and thus starts another vignette.)


This story, a first draft of an experience I had as a nurse’s aide, did not make it into Caring Lessons. Note the flow in the writing of a raw memory. See the conversational style. Note how you, too, could write down those raw, sad or happy, memories from your past that you could later share with others.

Writing a book can start this way–sitting down and letting your pen flow for ten minutes without interruption. These are called “free writes.” They almost write themselves once you get started.

This “free write” spoke to my early thoughts of “compassion” in nursing. To incorporate this story into Caring Lessons, I would have revised it several times. See last week’s post for more information.

Try your hand at revising it if you wish!


For more information, including a photo, read the history of spina bifida and hydrocephalus here.