by Judy Schaefer, RN, MA
The Bell Lap: Stories for Compassionate Nursing Care
When Cortney Davis and I as co-editors published Between the Heartbeats (University of Iowa Press, 1995), we thought we were in new territory with the first international collection of creative writing in English by nurses. I continue to argue that it is indeed the case that the nurse has an intimate opportunity to speak for the patient when the patient is unable to speak. Given the depth of the nurse’s experience and intimate knowledge, the absence of nurse’s creative voice has been startling. Modern nurses have been notoriously quiet in creative writing.
But no longer. In The Bell Lap, Muriel Murch, whose work appeared in Between the Heartbeats, breaks out with a collection of 15 short stories that are reminiscent of O. Henry and Hitchcock. Hers is a book of courage, gentleness, and affection that demonstrates that all fiction is true in one sense or another. Clinically accurate and artfully poignant, these stories provide another way of knowing. I wish I had read this book when I was a nursing student. The Bell Lap is ready made for the classroom of medical students, nursing students, and other healthcare givers. Patients and family members as well as the general public can learn something from it too.
There is a community inside and outside the door of the patient’s room. The nurse, more than any other healthcare giver, is a member of both communities and an advocate for the patient in both. Murch has elevated advocacy to an art form in The Bell Lap. The nuances of professional and patient intimacy are especially well written in “Mr. Tim’s Morning,” where outside the patient’s window the lorries rumble down a hill, and inside that window the nurse’s quiet attention is warm and skillfully subtle:
“Do you need anything?” She asked the question softly, almost vaguely in a manner that allowed him to be slow in his reply. If he chose pain he could receive an opiate. If he chose loneliness she might stay.
The fear in “The Vigil” is a worthy vehicle for discussion, especially for doctors and nurses. Our license to practice our chosen profession is not a shield from our own pain when it comes, as it always does, uninvited. We cannot see the future and prepare; we cannot focus on future catastrophe. We too must live in the moment, working, raising children, feeding the cats, mowing the lawn. And so, just like his patients, the elderly physician in this story does what everyone else does: he holds his wife’s hand and he waits.
The cultural nuance and attempts at connection during a home visit are described in “Dr. Patel Comes to Tea.” Geriatric treatment and management are vividly and charmingly narrated in the discussion of transition from home to a smaller home and finally to a home where 24-hour care is provided. Much can be learned from this short story, although each transitioning individual is complex and different from any other. The only criticism one could make is that perhaps this story is more charming than current reality. These are tough decisions with tugs of financial and familial conflict.
The characterizations in “The Dentist” are so accurate that I want to chuckle at the need of good military feet and teeth. But the cost is nothing to laugh about. The implications of healthy teeth, or simply the presence of teeth, are basic, whether at home or away. Yes, this is another story that would serve well for discussion groups.
The mystery in “The Letter M” is a good reminder that there is always more that we do not know. Often we don’t know those closest to us, and yet we think we do. How are we to handle new and surprising information about our loved ones? Oh, this is a story to be read and discussed! What is the importance, after all, of being there for the bell lap, that final lap of a race? Murch uses this metaphor beautifully for the final years of life, asking why should one be there for the bell lap, at all? Who cares?
Finality is the only problem I have with this too brief collection. In 155 pages, the book is over much too quickly. I want more. Therefore, a word of caution: do not read the stories too quickly but savor each one.
Muriel A. Murch
CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, Boca Raton, Florida, London, and New York, 2016