This is a story about light.
After a death in the family, my husband and I took a couple of days to recuperate Key West. My husband had just retired and was looking forward to starting some crucial repairs in our new, empty retirement home.
Our plans changed the very next day when my husband tumbled from a 14’ ladder. His leg was so shattered that his tibia had broken through his skin, and he was immediately medivaced to a Miami trauma hospital.
It was also the only area hospital that had a mandate to care for the indigent, the homeless, the uninsured, and the undocumented. Yet, the city, county, and state refused to provide adequate funds.
When we entered this hospital, we left our developed country behind. All signs were in Spanish, Creole, and English (in that order). Many of the hospital staff did not speak English. The hospital was severely underfunded, under resourced, and desperate. So desperate, we discovered later, that they latched onto patients with “blue ribbon” insurance, such as ours. They plied them with pain killers and long stays to take advantage of the insurance payments.
The hospital had a fraction of the resources that it needed to meet its relentless demand. Despite running over 50 operating rooms 24 hours a day, each of my husband’s seven scheduled surgeries had to be cancelled at the last minute. We learned to watch the news, when there was a gang war, we would get bumped.
After his initial surgery, my husband was admitted to the only ward with an available bed, the trauma unit, and promptly neglected. Since he was an orthopedic patient, and the orthopedic ward was far away, no doctor came to visit.
The first week we didn’t see a single medical professional. No one came to check on his open wound (since he would require another seven surgeries, his wound was merely dressed). No one changed his wound dressing, his sheets had never been changed, and his catheter beeped incessantly.
I begged the nurses to get us clean sheets. I feared that his open wound would become a magnet for staph infections (it did) and MRSA. I asked for a blanket, as my husband was shivering in the over-airconditioned room. We piled on all of the clothes that we had and waited and hoped.
We began to fear that no care was coming, so I went into action, demanding clean sheets and a medical professional—anyone—to see his wound. I begged, I pleaded, I demanded. I got nowhere.
The head nurse didn’t bother to mask her disdain. She despised the privilege that we had been born into and our pleas were ignored.
I demanded to know when we would be moved to the Orthopedic unit so that he could get care and begin the surgeries that needed to follow. She shrugged; we would just have to wait.
I learned to peek outside the room each time I heard the sound of footsteps or wheels, or the chatter of languages, hoping that someone would carelessly leave the linen closet unlocked. I was eventually rewarded, a hospital worker was placing fresh laundry in the linen closet, and I grabbed two sheets.
A Haitian man of some prominence occupied the other bed in our room. Our Haitian nurse curtsied when she tended to him and rushed by us. He must have understood our plight and after speaking to the nurse, she tossed a blanket to the end of our bed and hurried away.
After a week and desperate for care, I called the hospital patient liaison and told him of some of the issues; how we had yet to see any medical practitioner; how my husband’s bed was covered in dried bodily fluids, how painkillers arrived sporadically, how I feared that his untended wound would become infected.
Within a couple of hours, the head nurse appeared and announced that were being moved. I caught a smirk on her face as she left. I got a bad feeling.
Twenty four hours later, we found ourselves in a new ward…not the orthopedic ward…but a ward of hopelessness.
The smell of the other patient in the room was so nauseating that we both vomited. A sympathetic nurse came by with face masks. The staff routinely sprayed Lysol around the patient, who demanded cigarettes while he was awake and cried for them at night.
The head nurse of the ward arrived almost immediately. She compassionately listened to our story.
“You are being punished,” she explained. “Your bed is always left vacant.”
She explained how months ago, the patient had burned himself while lighting a cigarette in alcohol-drenched clothing. He was homeless, his mind absconded by severe alcohol abuse. He had had no visitors. The staff tried to bathe him, but his confusion and fear resulted in violence. Yet, despite his repulsiveness, she kindly spoke to him in Spanish each time she entered and left the room.
“You should not be here,” she explained to us. “I will find you a room in the orthopedic wing.” (She kept her promise and within 36 hours, we were in the Orthopedic ward.)
I learned that the ward that we found ourselves in was a ward for people who had been admitted to the hospital but had nowhere to recuperate. The hospital couldn’t put them back on the streets, and no facility would take them.
This ward was filled with people whose humanity had been stolen by abuse, poverty, drugs, disease, and mental illness. The stench of the unwashed wafted into the hallways. I could hear some patients muttering or complaining in unfamiliar languages. Others wailed, frightened, and confused by their circumstances. In other rooms, there was the silence of hopelessness and fear.
I became friendly with the head nurse. She kindly tended to each patient, addressing them in in their language. She explained to me how the hospital was severely short-staffed, and the overworked nurses were underpaid. The hospital often lacked linens, paper towels, tissues, blankets, or plastic water cups. Of all the wards that my husband stayed and would stay in, hers was the most desperate.
I wondered how she could keep working there, with such demanding and ungrateful patients, sometimes screaming invectives and curse words at their caregivers.
“How can you work here day in and day out?” I asked her.
“This is where I want to be,” she exclaimed with watery eyes. She had been there for almost a decade, and all of her nurses felt the same way. To them, working in that ward was a privilege.
“I want to care for these people,” she explained. “Each one of them could be Jesus Christ. When I care for them, I am caring for him.”
Our struggles would continue throughout our month long hospital stay. But this story is not about us. It is about the nurses in that ward, who could shine a small light every day in that darkness of despair.
I watched the nurses that day, marveling at how blindingly beautiful their light was.
Because a light that shines in total darkness is brighter than all of the suns in our galaxy.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.