by Marianna Crane
I heard the soft hum of oxygen flowing into a tented crib as I made my way down the corridor of the pediatric unit. From another room, a child barked a wet cough.
I stopped in front of the linen closet and flicked on my flashlight. I opened the door. The beam of light skimmed shelves stacked with crib sheets, blankets, and rubber mats before finally shining on the small bump covered by a blue blanket in an isolette. The blanket rose and fell with each baby breath. That’s all I needed to see. I snapped off the flashlight and shut the door.
The baby was still alive.
It was the summer of 1963. I had just turned twenty-one that May. After graduating from nursing school the previous fall, Gloria, my nursing school roommate and long-time friend, and I had quit our full time positions. We rented a beach house down the Jersey Shore. Our goal was to find part-time jobs, party on our nights off, and doze on the sand during the day. Once the summer was over, we planned to move to San Francisco. Outside our work environment, where we wore white uniforms and a professional demeanor, we shared an immaturity and hunger for a free-spirited lifestyle.
There were two night shift positions at the community hospital. We tossed a coin. Gloria won. She got surgery. I ended up in the pediatric unit.
That night when I arrived to start my shift, the evening nurse was sitting at the desk in the nursing station. Middle-aged, she wore her dark hair pulled back in a low bun at the nape of her neck. Usually busy with last minute charting, this time she watched my approach in silence. I pulled up a chair.
In a soft voice she began the ritual of giving report: “Room 400, bed one, two-year-old for observation after a television set fell on his head. He’s been fine. Going home tomorrow. Bed two, seven-year-old scheduled for a tonsillectomy.” She finished with room 410, a private room, which held an eighteen-month-old who had intermittent spiking fevers.
Thinking she was done with her report, I got up from my chair.
“Wait,” she said. I eased back down. “There’s a newborn in the linen closet at the end of the hall. He was born with spina bifida. The parents were told he couldn’t live with his deformities.” Her voice became softer. I leaned in to hear. “Just notify the nursing supervisor when he dies.”
I felt my chest constrict. A baby being left to die? This didn’t sound right. But the evening nurse had already risen as if to ward off any questions. She headed to the chart rack, pulled out a chair, sat down, selected a chart, flipped it open, and began to write.
“Oh yes,” she said over her shoulder. “The night supervisor knows you have a full house. Call her if you need anything.”
Once the evening nurse had left, I changed into sneakers. They were quieter than my nursing shoes and helped me race in and out of the rooms if I became busy. Then I took off my cap, the hallmark of my status as a registered nurse. It would fall off anyway when I stuck my head inside an oxygen tent. The night supervisor endeared herself to me, because when she made rounds on my floor she never reprimanded me for my sneakers or my bare head.
I braced myself for a hectic shift. Parents weren’t around to help or hinder since hospital policy prohibited their staying overnight. My nurse’s aide, Hattie, and I monitored our charges from midnight to dawn. I kept an eye on the sickest patients, dispensed medications, changed dressings, checked oxygen tanks, and counted the drops flowing from intravenous fluids. Hattie took temperatures, changed diapers, and fed the babies. Each room had a rocking chair for this purpose.
I found Hattie in the clean utility room. The acrid odor of alcohol drifted from two glass containers on top of the steel cart, one for each used oral or rectal thermometer. Clean diapers, washcloths, towels, and extra sheets were crammed onto the bottom shelf. An empty garbage bag hung off one side of the cart, and a cloth laundry bag for soiled linen hung off the other.
“No need to do anything for the baby in the linen closet,” I said, handing her the list of patients that would need temperatures taken. “I’ll check on him.”
Hattie’s pale pink uniform set off her dark skin. Her normally smiling face took on a solemn cast. What else could I say? I was told to monitor the baby and tell the supervisor when the baby died. I would follow orders.
Hattie and I were a good team. A few years older than me, she had worked on the pediatric unit for the past three years.
“How can you deal with sick children all the time?” I asked her on one of our first nights together.
“I go home and give my kids a big hug. Then I thank the good Lord they’re healthy,” she said.
Well, I had no children to go home to. And I had no intention of staying at this job. After I went off duty, it was all I could do not to replay the images of the sad, weeping children alone in their cribs.
I began my rounds, slipping quietly into the rooms, shining my flashlight on sleeping bodies. The two year old injured by a fallen TV woke. He pulled himself up. The bandage wrapped around his head had slid down over his eyes.
“Mommy,” he called, stretching his arms through the crib railing. I lifted him out, straightened the white gauze turban, and rocked him. From my peripheral vision I watched Hattie tiptoe into the room. She handed me a sheet of paper.
“This is the only elevation,” she said as she aimed her flashlight on the paper so I could read her report.
“Damn,” I said under my breath. The eighteen month old with fever of unknown origin had a high temperature.
“Sorry,” I whispered to the boy in my lap. “I have to go now.”
I lowered him back into his crib. He clung to my uniform. I pried open his fits. His sobs followed me as I headed down the hall to the clean utility room to grab towels, a basin of cold water, and a rubber mat.
I closed the door to the private room behind me and snapped on the lights. The feverish boy sat in his crib, his arms limp by his side, his face flushed. His glassy eyes followed my movements. I hummed as I placed the mat on the inside of the crib. Setting the basin on the bedside table, I proceeded to soak two towels, one at a time, in the cold water, wringing them out and placing them on the mat.
Soon I had the boy undressed and wrapped in the wet towels. A dry towel encased him, holding in the moisture. I placed him on my lap, which was covered with the rubber mat to protect my uniform from getting soaked. His weak cry reached some primal place deep inside me. Tears dripped down my cheeks as I rocked.
I remembered my student rotation in pediatrics. I felt helpless when I couldn’t take away pain or discomfort from the babies or children assigned to me. I had vowed then never to work in pediatrics. I had to remind myself if it weren’t for the job, I wouldn’t be able to rent the beach house, cultivate the perfect tan, or go to bars to meet boys.
Finally the baby’s fever broke. I dressed him in a dry diaper and undershirt and left him asleep in his crib. I dropped off the basin, towels, and rubber mat in the soiled utility room and began to check my patients again.
I started at the end of the hall and cracked the door open to the linen closet. My flashlight illuminated the isolette, a simple crate-like box with clear plastic sides that held a small mattress. Isolettes were used to move babies from the delivery room to the nursery where they were washed, swaddled, and taken into the mothers’ rooms for cooing and cuddling. This baby’s isolette had traveled from the delivery room directly to the closet. Where were the parents now? What were they thinking? Did they even know that their baby was stored in a linen closet?
Staring into the isolette, I prayed. Please let the baby be alive. Don’t let him die on my shift. The blanket moved. The baby was breathing. Relived, I closed the door and continued rounds.
Toward the end of our shift, Hattie and I marched down the corridor, brightened by the rising sun, to prep a child scheduled for surgery. I carried a tray with two hypodermic syringes: one filled with a sedative and the other with a drug to prevent bradycardia, an abnormally slow heart rate that can occur with laryngeal stimulation during surgery.
The bed sheet had twisted around the ten-year-old girl’s long thin body. She jerked when we approached the bed. In a second she sprung up from the mattress, her eyes riveted on the syringes. Having had multiple skin graft operations in the past she knew what was coming. She bounced on bare legs covered with pits and valleys like craters on the moon from scar tissue caused by severe burns. No amount of pleading would entice her to hold still. Finally, Hattie and I succeeded in encircling her in a sheet, leaving her right arm out for me to inject. I left the room in a sweat. Hattie stayed behind to comfort, wash, and dress the girl in a clean hospital gown.
Soon the day shift arrived: two nurses and two aides. A few minutes later, the head nurse lumbered into the nurses’ station. She took down the plastic hatbox stored on the shelf in the coat closet and lifted out a white cupcake cap. When she emerged from the nurses’ bathroom, the cap was secured with a bobby pin to the top of her head. Then she lowered her heavy haunches onto one of the stools by the counter where I waited in my nursing shoes, cap on my head: professional and deceptively unfrazzled.
I reported on the condition of each of the twenty-one patients Hattie and I had cared for during the night.
“There’s more,” I said as she started to rise. I told her about the baby in the closet. I tried not to show emotion, but my voice cracked when I continued.
“I was told to notify the night supervisor when he dies.”
The head nurse raised her squinty eyes to my face. I paused for a second to control my emotions. By God she was not going to see me cry. I forced out each word in staccato rhythm: “He is still alive.”
The head nurse gathered her notes, pushed herself up from the stool, glanced at the paper stack in the wire bin on the counter, and said, “You haven’t finished filing the lab reports.”
While I pasted each report in its respective chart, I tried to figure out why the head nurse seemed to dislike me. She never criticized my nursing care, but then she never told me I was doing a good job either. I decided, in my egotistical way, that she was jealous of my youth, freedom, and thinness.
Then I thought of Gloria sitting in the visitors’ lounge at the end of the hall. She always got off on time and waited for me so we could drive home together. This morning she would have to wait longer than usual.
I filed the last report and tramped off the unit, slowing down as I passed the linen closet. I was off for the next two days. Chances were the baby would have died by the time I returned.
Gloria leaned against the doorframe to the patient lounge. Snatching her tanned arm, I pulled her toward the stairs, anxious to leave the hospital and put this night behind me.
That was decades ago. I have since raised two children of my own, built a career, and moved several times. Now, during the serene days of retirement, I babysit regularly for my daughter’s children. When she placed my first grandson on my chest and covered him with a blue blanket, I closed my eyes and felt his breath soft on my cheek. While we rocked, my mind wandered back to the dim pediatric corridor. Fragments of memories, long buried, began to surface.
I see myself young, thin, and tan, dressed in a starched white uniform. I am walking down the hall of the pediatric unit. The breathing of my young charges floats from patient rooms. At the end of the hall I stop in front of the door to the linen closet—a door I have kept closed for almost fifty years. I clutch the knob, turn and push the door open. I flick on my flashlight. The beam illuminates an isolette. Inside, the blue blanket rises and falls. But instead of quickly closing the door, I watch myself place the flashlight on the shelf and lift the baby into my arms.