Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley

Mountaineering in My Valley Front Yard

My hikes and backpacks in the Southwestern mountains decreased during my years in the Valley.  The vivid and unimpeded views from our property of some of America’s most rugged wilderness areas, coupled with the tranquility of our immediate surroundings, often satisfied my need to light out for the remote. 

Fitness, or a lack thereof, was another factor that kept me at home.  When in mountains, I liked to camp at the higher elevations, where grand views are abundant and the thrill of a next-door lightning strike is a possibility.  My heart and lungs delivered me easily to the to the 10- and 11,000-foot elevations of central and southern New Mexico.  However, they did not do so well with the 12- and 13,000-foot heights of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.  So I was often content to stay at home, soak up the views, ride my bicycle on quiet country roads, and visit the Western wilderness in the richness of literature―in the writings of Frank Waters, Cormac McCarthy, A.B. Guthrie, Harvey Fergusson, Colin Fletcher, Annie Proulx, and Frederick Manfred. 

Yet I still occasionally forced myself to gasp and spit, fracture a humerus, tear a medial meniscus in the San Juans and Sangre de Cristos.  I had to tempt these fates.  Along with the sexual act, wilderness visits were the most primal, most authentic experiences I could imagine.  Maurice Herzog, who, along with Louis Lachenal, was the first person to summit Annapurna in the Himalayas, captured it for me when he wrote: “I believe what I felt [the day of the summit] closely resembles what we call happiness.  I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances it is because the planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete.  It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied.”  (This even after Annapurna “digested” all of Herzog’s fingers and toes via frostbite.)

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

More Men’s Work

After 16 months of being a nurse aide, I was beyond any self-consciousness, doubts, or hesitations about doing “women’s work.”  I had lifted and transferred enough dead-weight men and women, rolled with enough verbal insults of demented patients, dodged enough projectile vomiting, emptied enough bedpans, and witnessed enough death and dying to arrive at that comfortable place.  For a quarter-century I had been doing hatha yoga regularly for strength, flexibility, and balance, and this had served me well on my job.  

Still, I wondered how much longer I could jockey patients and twist and turn in shower stalls without risking permanent injury.  Meanwhile, I wanted greater responsibility in delivering healthcare and felt, despite never being much interested in the biological sciences, I had the intelligence to handle such a challenge.  And I’d always admired the Civil War nursing of Walt Whitman.

So, once again with my wife’s blessing, I quit my jobs at the hospital and the Council and began studying for a license in practical nursing, which was offered by the same junior college that trained me in nurse aiding.  

Before entering the formal nursing program, I had to take foundational courses―human development, microbiology, and anatomy and physiology―at the junior college and Adams State. 

Somewhat to my surprise, formal instruction in nursing began with my old friends, such things as taking vital signs, body mechanics, proper handwashing, bed baths, utilizing bedpans, and proper bedmaking.  How cocky I felt, having done this now for nearly two years!  But my cockiness was short-lived as we were plunged into the far more challenging fundamentals of nursing, such things as “anions,” “acidosis,” “alkalosis,” “osmolality,” “osmolarity,” “angiotensin,” and IV infusion.

One day I was pleasantly surprised, moved even, when the junior college presented me with a new Littmann stethoscope―a specialized cardiology scope, no less―merely for being a “non-traditional”―i.e., male―nursing student.  One other classmate, a little younger than myself, was similarly presented.  He was a smart, likable Del Norte ski patrolman and bicycle-frame designer.  A Latino from northern Colorado, he told me he was advised by his parents to downplay his Latin heritage if he wanted to advance in life.  He had succeeded at this, in my opinion, although perhaps with the help of genetics.  Like Chris, he, too, could have passed for Irish.

Further into my education, I was blindsided when I discovered that nearly an entire semester was to be devoted to the study of pediatric nursing, which included a separate textbook, thick as a loaded diaper, on the subject.  Children flatly did not interest me, nor did they particularly interest my wife.  Two years into our marriage, we agreed we never wanted to have children, desired instead to be, in the positive, empowering parlance, “child-free”; thus, I underwent a vasectomy.  My goal as a nurse was to care for adults in a long-term-care facility or work in a clinic for a physician who, like my wife, specialized in internal medicine, medical care for adults.  So, as a nursing student, I trudged through the readings and lectures about such things as gestation and birthing processes, neonatal care, vaccinations, and breastfeeding. 

Our nursing class trained―once again in mandatory blinding-white scrubs, socks, and shoes―at the Valley’s various hospitals and long-term-care units.  At the Alamosa hospital, I witnessed a caesarean section, which I found fascinating, although purely as a surgical procedure, not as a “joyous,” “miraculous” debut of another hungry mouth on the planet.  I watched in fascination the arthroscopic repair of a torn rotator cuff, the area around the compromised cuff inflated to a freakish, Popeye-the-Sailor proportion with a fluid necessary to properly perform the procedure.  After observing these procedures, I had my usual ridiculous fantasies―in these cases, not about being a surgeon, but rather about being an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist.  I love the way these latter two, always quietly and competently in the background, deliver one to La-La Land just before the knives are drawn.   

For the next year-and-a-half, although I was licensed as a practical nurse, I effectively worked as a “medical assistant” in various clinics in the Valley’s regional medical center, located in Alamosa.  Linda was now employed by the medical center as well.  I “floated” frequently, working for internists, physicians’ assistants, and nurse practitioners.  I worked for an ear, nose, and throat specialist; an OBGYN; and a general surgeon.  I worked for an internist who specialized as well in cosmetic dermatology, assisting her when she injected patients with Botox to reduce facial wrinkles (although the quest for beauty and eternal youthfulness struck me as more of a big-city obsession, somehow incongruous with life in our rugged, remote, sparsely-populated, and dirty-fingernailed Valley where, it seemed to me, deeds and grit were more determinate than looks).

I loved and was proud of working as a medical assistant: readying patient medical charts for the day’s schedule (this being before electronic records); measuring heights and weights and taking vital signs; hustling back and forth to the medical records department for as-needed charts throughout the day; giving injections; performing EKGs; stocking exam rooms; digging for lab results; flipping multi-colored plastic cueing flags beside exam room doors.  The specialization and selectness of delivering healthcare recalled that of electronically processing data.

I liked most of my patients, the bulk of them 40 and older.  In our sparsely-populated Valley, I regarded them as my neighbors. 

I now planned to earn a living as a medical assistant until I retired.  At times I wished I’d studied 15 years earlier to become a registered nurse rather than a college instructor, office administrator, and occasional writer.  But, back then, I was hung up on “women’s work.”

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Men’s Work

Over the next two years my hours at the Council decreased.  Although Chris was working at full capacity, there was no longer even 20 weekly hours for me.  I didn’t want to leave the organization, so I began considering possibilities for a second part-time job. 

I pictured the sheer boredom of selling furniture or clothing on Alamosa’s main street.  I couldn’t imagine waiting tables.  And I didn’t want to sort the Valley’s famous potatoes all day long in a chilly warehouse.  

Then, one day, Linda informed me that nurse aides were in demand in the Valley, where there were three hospitals and even more long-term-care facilities (what used to be commonly known as “nursing homes”).  So she suggested that I become an aide.

Wow, that’s different, I thought. 

But why not?

Sure, I knew that “nurse aide” was a non-traditional job for a man.  I knew that many men―and women―considered nurse aiding strictly “women’s work.”  And gay men’s work. 

But I had long fancied myself something of a non-traditional man.  When I was a graduate student, I’d done some cooking and housekeeping while my wife worked full time.  From the day we married, I knew my wife, as a physician, would always have three or four times my earning power, and I was comfortable with that.  Because I loved her, she loved me, and I was doing what I wanted to do. 

Furthermore, I’d traveled what many would consider the “manly” route: factory worker, concrete spreader, forklift operator, miner, and night-shift cab driver.  I’d proven my manhood satisfactorily to myself, and I had no desire to return to any of these occupations.  Thus, if all of this amounted to “liberation,” then yes, I proudly considered myself a “liberated man.” 

It so happened that Alamosa’s branch of a Trinidad, Colorado, junior college offered a three-month course to become a certified nurse aide, so I applied and was accepted.

There were about a dozen students in the course, including one man about my age.  With the first stethoscope and sphygmomanometer of my own, I learned how to take a blood pressure.  I learned CPR, how to take a pulse, and measure oxygen saturation.  A Valley physical therapist taught us proper body mechanics in the transference of hospital patients and long-term-care residents.  We were taught how to feed people and safely accompany them as they ambulated, how to shift bedridden people to avoid skin tears, and how to use a gait belt.  A decubitus, or pressure ulcer, was something I’d never heard of until this course, and we were lectured stringently about the perils of this condition.  We were taught that mattress pads and bottom sheets must be as smooth as possible to avoid ulcers.  We were taught how to perform a bed bath.  We were even taught how to make a bed, including a technique I’d never heard of: “mitering a corner,” which had a geometric beauty I rather admired.

Toward the conclusion of the course, the students were required to spend several days practicing what they had learned at two long-term-care facilities and one hospital in the Valley.  For these events, solid white was required for scrubs, footwear, and socks.  However, I hated this look―like the Good Humor man, or a crooked, goonish orderly in a Three Stooges comedy. 

In any event, my first day as a nurse aide occurred at a long-term-care facility.  It was a mentally and emotionally exhausting day.  Observing my female classmates, I felt pressured to feign a sweet-talking tenderness with the facility’s elderly residents in order not to frighten them.  Maybe this was necessary, maybe not.  But it was an affectation with which I was utterly uncomfortable.  So much for the “liberated man”?  I performed “peri care”―hygiene after defecation―on several residents; other than my first experience with sexual intercourse, it was the strangest thing I’d ever done with another person.  I was faced with cleaning and dressing a demented woman who had smeared herself with her own feces; mercifully, an experienced facility aide came to my aid during the episode.  At the end of the day, I seriously doubted I wanted to work in a “nursing home.”  Ensuring an air of cheerful domesticity―bathing, dressing, bingo, jigsaw puzzles, warm reminiscing while paging through photo albums―not delivering healthcare, seemed to me to be the primary aim in such a facility.  Which is why I vastly preferred the class field trip to a Valley hospital, where I spent a day actually aiding nurses.    

Several months after graduation, I was hired as an aide in a 15-bed hospital in the village of La Jara, 10 miles south of our house.  The hospital’s nursing staff consisted of a registered nurse and, depending upon the daily census, one or two licensed practical nurses.  I worked three days a week, alternating with one other day aide.  The job was a perfect complement to my responsibilities at the Council.

I worked at the hospital for 16 months. 

Routine and revelation: Arriving for work in the black-and-blue Valley dawn and softly greeting the nurses in chairs but often dozing, their shift having begun at 3:00 A.M.  Getting patients up and toileted by 7:00.  Distributing breakfasts.  Watching in discrete horror a sweet long-term patient with pulmonary edema swell up like the Michelin Man . . . and eventually die as his wife howls in grief in the hallway.  Reading Thomas Wolfe during the idle hours. Sharing a bag of potato chips and left-leaning sentiments with the ER doc barefoot in Birkenstocks.  Assisting in my first I&D, a spectacle of pus fountaining seemingly forever from a man’s back.  Contorting and soaking myself while bathing wheelchair-bound patients in a walk-in shower.  Routinely ignored by the regular rounding physician, a cowboy-booted redneck whom I disliked.  Squeezing my way through 9 stone-faced family members on a deathwatch in order to record tepid vital signs. Free at last to wear colorful scrubs.