61: Never Underestimate an Army Nurse

61: Never Underestimate an Army Nurse

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

Never Underestimate an Army Nurse

I came to realize that life lived to help others is the only one that matters and that it is my duty. This is my highest and best use as a human.

~Ben Stein

I don’t remember her name. I don’t even remember a clear picture of her face. In my mind’s eye all I see is the outline of an Army nurse. I see the short-sleeved, pale green uniform top with the shadows of epaulets on her shoulders. The cut of her A-line skirt. Her stockinged legs from the knees down, and the sturdy brown shoes on her feet. I see the crisp pleat in the center of the back of her shirt. And the small half moons of sweat in her armpits. She is clearest to me from behind because it was from that position that she played such a big role in my life.

I am the fifth of ten children. My mother drank. When she was at her worst, we got shipped out to relatives. I got shipped out on repeated occasions to stay with my mother’s youngest sister. My aunt’s family consisted of her son, who was six months younger than I, and her Army officer husband. Every time I went to stay with them I got to sleep in a bedroom fit for a princess, with a canopy bed, a vanity table, and a dresser taller than I was, all in winter white wood. While it was a welcome change from the tiny bedroom I shared with my two older sisters, I never really liked that room. I never felt comfortable in it because it cost too much.

The summer I turned nine I went to stay with my aunt and her family at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. Within a month of my arrival I had taught myself to hypercirculate. I learned how to raise my body temperature and give myself flash nosebleeds. I went to the emergency room a lot that summer. They thought it was the Texas heat. Or maybe an allergic reaction to something.

Late in the summer, I was taken to the emergency room once again with a gushing bloody nose. There was a new nurse on duty that day who turned around and looked me in the eyes. I don’t know if she took a liking to me, or if she sensed something was up. Or maybe she had just looked at my fat and growing medical file and saw the repeat visits to the ER. Whatever it was, she was instantly kind to me. Kind and protective. She asked me what my favorite color was and what I wanted to be when I grew up. She asked me questions that had nothing to do with what was happening to me at night in my aunt’s house. And then she did something no one else had thought to do: she got me admitted to the hospital.

Fear crossed my aunt’s face when the nurse said I was being admitted. Her human shield would be absent from her house that night. Jealousy passed across my cousin’s face. I didn’t look at the face of my aunt’s husband.

The nurse got me into a wheelchair and turned her back on them and wheeled me away. She pulled the curtains around me and gave me privacy to change, without my having to ask. She got me settled into bed and let me pick what I wanted for dinner. She came back with my meal tray and a short stack of books. She pulled a chair close and read to me as I ate. Dinner and the rhythmic rise and fall of her voice were the perfect lullaby for a nine-year-old black girl who had trouble sleeping.

Once I had finished my second dinner tray, the nurse helped me clean up and settle down in the bed. She started reading again from where she had left off. In the middle of the story, in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of her taking a breath to read the next word, my aunt’s husband came into my hospital room.

There was no plan between the nurse and me, no signal given, no exchange of any untoward information. But the minute that door opened, I shut my eyes and let my body go limp. My ears were wide open, though. I heard the nurse shush him and tell him without skipping a beat that I was sound asleep.

He stopped so abruptly that his shoes squeaked on the hospital floor.

“Nurse,” he said, and it wasn’t a title of respect. “What are you doing here?”

“Keeping an eye on my patient.”

“What did you say to me, Lieutenant?”

When he called her by her rank, she put the book down and stood at attention. “Sir,” she said, “I am keeping an eye on my patient, Sir.”

He told her he knew she wasn’t still on duty.

She countered with a desire to go above and beyond the call.

He warned her that he was perfectly capable of watching his niece.

She countered with being needed in case the nosebleed recurred.

He gave her a direct order to leave my hospital room.

She stood at attention and responded, “Sir, no Sir!”

He gave the order again and again.

I couldn’t see either of their faces, but I could hear the fitful rising of his anger and her robot-like parroting of that one single phrase. Her tone was one of utmost respect, and utmost resilience. She never got angry; she never got loud; and she never moved from my bedside.

He was yelling at her. You could feel the vibration of it and the pop of moisture as he spat the words in her face.

I don’t know how I managed to stay still. Maybe it was something in the sureness of her refusal to leave me. If she could stand up to the man who had terrorized so many of my nights, then I could feign sleep.

He left my hospital room in a huff, calling her, in muttered exhales, all of the nasty names they reserve for women who don’t do what they’re told. He threatened her with all kinds of repercussions, both personal and military. And then the soft whoosh of the hospital door closing cut him off.

The nurse did not say a single thing to me about what had just happened. She simply sat back down in the chair and began to read from the book at the place where she had left off. Again her voice worked to calm me to my bones. I tipped over into blessed sleep.

For those three nights I spent in the hospital, that nurse, whoever she was, gave me the first nights of peace in my very young life. She gave me a glimpse of what it means to stand up to a bully. She never said a single word to me about what was happening to me in my aunt’s home. She just gave me a few precious days of safety that showed me a world where that didn’t have to happen to me. Whoever she was, wherever she is, bless her.

~Cassandra Brent

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