A Dose of Compassion

A Dose of Compassion

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

A Dose of Compassion

There never was any heart truly great and generous that was not also tender and compassionate.

Robert South

Any first-year elementary teacher knows that half the children she sends to the nurse aren’t sick at all. But what’s a teacher to do? If she sends him and he isn’t sick, he misses a math test. But if she doesn’t send him and he is sick, he may throw up all over the classroom. It is that thought that makes even veteran teachers tremble.

So she sends little Johnny to the clinic. He practically skips down the hall with the clinic pass clutched tightly in his little fist. After five or ten minutes he returns to the classroom. The paraphernalia he brings back tells the story: two saltine crackers for a tummy ache, a Dixie cup with ice for a sore throat, or a Band-Aid for anything that involves even the most microscopic speck of blood. He walks back into class proudly displaying the proof that he was indeed declared to be in need of medical attention by a trained professional. At our school, her name is Nurse Janice.

I had been teaching for nine years when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic and unpredictable disease. The diagnosis brought with it worry, and surprisingly, relief. It meant that there was a name for my suffering. There was a reason for my debilitating fatigue and weakness. But it also meant that life changes would occur over which I had no control.

Learning about the disease and how to cope with it filled my time and my thoughts. The fatigue was unbearable. No matter how much I slept or rested, I was still tired. On the outside I looked the same; no one would have suspected a thing. But the truth was, my health was deteriorating. Daily injections slowed the progression of the disease, but I was fighting an invisible enemy. And I hated it. I began losing strength in my right leg, which caused me to limp when I was tired. And when I started losing my balance, stumbling and staggering, it was just one more indignity to add to the list. Still, I bravely and stoically continued to teach.

After a lot of thought, I decided to tell only two people at work about my diagnosis: the principal and the school nurse.

“I want you to know just in case,” I explained to Nurse Janice. “I don’t expect anything to ever happen at work. But if it does you’ll know my medical history.”

“Thank you, Karen,” she said, looking into my eyes. “And how are you with all of this?”

“I’m fine,” I said, still in denial. “I’m fine. But I don’t want anybody to know, okay?”

“This is between you and me,” she promised.

A few months later, her promise would be tested. As I was hurrying across the classroom one day, I stumbled. In an instant I was falling. My arm slammed into a desk as I fell to the floor, where I landed on my stomach. A coworker rushed to my side. Tears started to well as I slowly got up.

When I entered the clinic, Nurse Janice looked up. “Karen, what’s wrong?”

“I fell,” I managed to say.

“Keep an eye on the kids in the clinic,” she said to the nearby receptionist.

She led me to an empty office next to the clinic and shut the door behind her. I sat down holding my arm as she knelt in front of me, gently wiggling my pant leg up to reveal a badly skinned knee. “This might sting a little,” she said, putting ointment on it.

She asked questions and reassured me. Her eyes were kind and comforting. I felt as if I was her only patient, and that she had all the time in the world. She carefully bandaged my knee and then looked at my upper arm, which was already turning purple over an area the size of a brick.

She put her hand on mine and asked, “How are you?”

“Well, my arm is starting to hurt and . . . ” I started.

“No,” she said softly. “How are you?”

I knew her question wasn’t about a skinned knee or a bruised arm. The question was deeper. My life had been turned upside down with the diagnosis of MS and I hadn’t cried a single tear. But now I cried . . . and cried. I wept for lost dreams and an uncertain future. I sobbed deeply, from the core of my being. She consoled me, and then I cried some more. When the tears slowed and then finally stopped, she brought me a cold, wet paper towel to put over my swollen eyes.

“Take as much time as you need,” she soothed.

When I was ready to reenter the world again, I followed her back to the clinic to get a bag of ice for my arm. Kids were lined up to see the nurse; one with tear-streaked cheeks, another holding her stomach, and a few more sat waiting to tell their stories.

As I walked out of the clinic, I glanced back and had to smile. Nurse Janice was on her knees, with the face of a small child cupped gently in her hands. This is what she does day after day, I thought. Students come and go. Sick or not, they get a dose of compassion, a dose of kindness, and a listening ear. They get a moment to be the only one in the room.

Healing takes place in that little clinic with the cartoon posters. It takes place while sitting on a green vinyl bed, with a nurse looking into the eyes of a child and listening, really listening, to what is said, and to what isn’t said. And the cup of ice or saltine crackers he takes back to class may not prove to his teacher that he was truly hurting. But it is proof to one small child . . . and me . . . that in that moment, we are more important than anyone else in the world.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz

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