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

“Women’s Work”

Not long after 9/11, the Council moved its office to a two-room, second-floor accommodation overlooking Alamosa’s main street; its carpet was worn and the office’s “restroom” was a bathroom shared with a stealth family who lived directly across the hallway.  However, over the next two years, my hours at the organization gradually decreased.  Although Chris was working at full capacity, there was no longer even twenty 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.  And I didn’t want to sort the Valley’s famous potatoes all day long in a frigid warehouse.  

However, Linda had learned that nurse aides were in short supply in the Valley, where there were two hospitals and several long-term-care facilities (what used to be commonly known as “nursing homes”).  So, one day, she suggested that I become a nurse aide.

Wow, that’s different, I thought.  But why not?

Sure, I knew that “nurse aide” is a non-traditional job for a man.  I knew that many men―and women―consider nurse aiding strictly “women’s work.”  And gay men’s work.  But, at that point in my life, I fancied myself something of a non-traditional man.  Ten years earlier, when I was a graduate student in English, 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.  And if there was any “manhood” that needed to be proven to myself or anyone else, I felt I’d already proven it: my job history included tire-factory worker, forklift operator, underground miner, and night-shift cab driver.  I had no desire to return to any of those occupations.  So, 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 junior college based in Trinidad, Colorado, offered a three-month course to become a certified nurse aide.  So, I applied.

I easily met the admission requirements for the program.  There were about a dozen students in the class, 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 physical transference of patients and 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 dangers of this malady.  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.

Matching the concern for pressure ulcers was a focus on infection control.  Thus, we were tested in our thoroughness of handwashing: a minimum of twenty seconds, about the time it takes for back-to-back renditions of “Happy Birthday.”  (Of course, this would serve me well when the coronavirus arrived on our shores.)  However, I thought our nurse instructor had gone a bit too far when she insisted, after the insertion of a patient’s pillow into a freshly-laundered case with a minimum of disturbance (disturbance, she reminded us, creates air currents, which can deliver germs), the mouth of the pillowcase must face away from the door to the patient’s room, the open mouth of a pillowcase being a potential catchment basin for hallway germs migrating into the room.  (Well, the instructor did describe herself as “anal.”)

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.  I hated this look―like the Good Humor man or an orderly in a 50s insane asylum.  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.  I felt I had to feign a sweet-talking tenderness with the facility’s elderly residents so as not to frighten them, 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 briefly had to single-handedly clean and dress a demented woman who had smeared herself with her own feces―mercifully, a facility aide came to my aid during this episode.  However, at the end of the day, I seriously doubted I wanted to work in a “nursing home.”  Domesticity―the bathing, dressing, bingo, jigsaw puzzles―not healthcare seemed to be the 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 by Conejos County Hospital, a fifteen-bed facility in the village of La Jara, ten miles south of our house.  I worked three consecutive days, from six a.m. to three p.m., and then took four days off, alternating with one other day aide.  The hospital’s nursing staff consisted of a registered nurse and, depending upon the daily census, one or two licensed practical nurses. 

I worked at the hospital for sixteen months.  Arriving for work in the black-and-blue Valley dawn.  Gently greeting the nurses―in chairs but often asleep, as their shift had begun three hours earlier.  Taking vital signs at a cold dawn on a dying patient as her nine family members looked on, their silence and solemnity recalling that of the Mexican Indians in the “resuscitation” scene in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Getting patients up and toileted by seven.  Distributing breakfasts.  Getting routinely ignored by the hospital’s only rounding physician, a cowboy-booted redneck whom I disliked.  Listening to a spunky female LPN discretely go on about the joy of receiving oral sex.  Occasionally sharing liberal political views and a bag of potato chips with the hospital’s Birkenstocksed ER doc, whom I did like.  Learning about the care of patients with MRSA.  Slogging through a Thomas Wolfe novel in the afternoons when the pace had slowed.  Watching in discrete disbelief as a sweet, stoic long-term patient with pulmonary edema swell up like the Michelin Man, his skin glazed as if with plastic―and eventually die, his normally-composed wife now howling in grief in the hallway outside his door.  Attending a baby shower for an LPN’s first-born.  Assisting in my first “I&D,” or incision and draining: stunned as I watched pus fountain endlessly from a patient’s back.  Wearing scrubs of any color I chose.  

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