95: Payback

95: Payback

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses


A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influences stop.

~Henry Adams

By the time I reached fourth grade I was taller than everyone in my class. Truth be told, I was taller than every kid in the Epiphany Grammar School, and even my teacher my teacher, Miss Liston. Unfortunately my height far surpassed my coordination, agility, and scholastic aptitude. I became the class clown, and not by choice. I struggled with arithmetic, spelling and reading. Recess was even worse, when everyone ran around playing games and sports. Clumsy was my middle name.

Each afternoon Miss Liston finished the day by reading to the class for fifteen minutes. I was relieved to see the end of another day’s string of embarrassments and would lose myself in her voice and the story, usually a chapter book such as Danny, The Champion of the World. During those quiet minutes I watched her read effortlessly, magically, as though she recognized every word, a talent I yearned to be mine. If I could read with such ease I could find my way to happier places and times. I could grow up like my father, who seemed to spend the end of every evening behind the cover of his beloved books. Miss Liston apparently took notice of my rapt attention. I don’t remember how she took me under her wing but by the time I moved on to fifth grade I was reading at an eighth-grade level. My self-image, self-esteem, and life path were altered forever.

When asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had an absolutely certain response: “I want to read.” I was still unaware that Professional Reader was not a viable career path. By my senior year of high school that goal had morphed into becoming a journalist.

During my junior year of college I dropped out. I found a job as a newspaper reporter and discovered that while I had the diligence and desire to be a journalist, I had neither the education nor the talent to succeed. Five years of struggling to write one good sentence were enough. I quit writing. But I couldn’t quit eating or pay my rent with my good looks. I quickly found a job as an operating room orderly at a local hospital. I was fascinated by the science, inter-personal connectivity, and outright compassion that seemed to enable patients to heal.

A friendly, insightful nursing school instructor who watched me transport frightened patients to the OR took me aside one day and suggested that I consider becoming a registered nurse. At that time, male RNs were rare. It took another year for me to make the leap.

I found nursing school to be far easier than most of my classmates. I could read, write term papers and patient care plans, and study with effortlessness and pleasure.

One early spring evening during my first year as an emergency room nurse, an ambulance brought an elderly woman in who’d apparently suffered a stroke. She was secured on the stretcher and covered with several sheets and a blanket. As I approached, the paramedic began his report. “We have a seventy-eight-year-old woman, Agnes Liston, found at home by neighbors…” I didn’t hear the rest. I quickly, gently folded back the sheet to better see Miss Liston’s ancient, now drooping face. Silently, I smiled at her a long moment until she could focus through her fright. “Hello, Miss Liston. It’s me, Tommy Schwarz. Do you remember me?” I asked softly. She stared back and her facial muscles twitched. “I’ll take that as a ‘Yes’.”

I learned that as a life-long spinster, she’d outlived family and friends. No one came to visit her while she was hospitalized except me. For the next three days I sat at her bedside reading to her. She was unable to communicate her boredom or appreciation. I like to think she recognized every word. It looked like she felt comforted. I felt privileged to give back in a direct and personal way to someone who had loved and helped me so much.

~Thom Schwarz

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