Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well

Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well

His eyes said it all. They had to. With a ventilator tube protruding from his mouth, Max couldn’t tell me how awful the pain was, but I knew just by looking into those beautiful blue eyes that it was unbearable.

Max, my husband, had just undergone an eight-hour operation to replace his almost useless liver with one from an anonymous donor who had died just hours before. This incredible gift would give Max the possibility to live longer than his forty years. He would be able to watch our two children grow into adulthood and we would fulfill our dream of growing old together.

At the time Max received his transplant, doctors felt it unwise to give much pain medication after the surgery, giving the new liver a better chance of functioning properly. I’m sure they told us about this when they explained about the surgery but with so many details this one either went unheard—or we just didn’t want to hear it.

That is how I found myself sitting in the recovery room watching the man I loved wracked with pain that no one could do anything to relieve. I felt powerless. I felt frustrated. I felt like I would go crazy. I had visions of running down the halls, screaming at the top of my lungs, and going right out the hospital door. I had never felt so helpless in my life. But Max needed me. I knew I had to pull myself together and do something other than nervously stroke his hand.

Why was I thinking so irrationally? After all, I was no stranger to stress and pain. Then it occurred to me. I knew what to do. I knew how to deal with pain. As a childbirth educator for the last fourteen years, I taught women how to cope with the pain of childbirth—and what pain could be worse than that? I knew the drill—take a deep breath and concentrate on relaxing.

In a soothing, yet firm voice, I said, “Max, you’re going to have to listen to me and do exactly what I say. I believe I can help you deal with the pain.”

This was a risk. Max had little use for our Lamaze classes when we were expecting our first child. In fact, he embarrassed me by falling asleep during most of them. Then, when I trained as a childbirth educator and began teaching classes myself, he used to tease that I was teaching these women “voodoo.”

If I hadn’t been so panicked, I’d probably have chuckled. Max was a “captive audience” and I was going to do my “voodoo” on him.

I began by using a common relaxation exercise. I talked our way through his body telling him to relax first his forehead and then his eyes; his cheeks and then his jaw; his neck and then his shoulders. I told him how he could relax his chest muscles and not fight the ventilator and how he could relax his abdominal muscles to ease the pain there. We went all through his body, relaxing each tight muscle all the way down to his toes.

At first it helped but soon the pain became apparent on his face again. I also could tell by the look in his eyes that he was a bit annoyed with my ordering him around, but I knew I had to keep trying to find something to help.

I then decided to use another pain management technique that works well for laboring women—visualization. I began talking softly about a trip Max and I had taken years before to Martha’s Vineyard. “See the boat ride over to the island and how we fed the seagulls midair.” Then I went on to describe our room in the quaint little bed and breakfast. I talked about our walks along the shore. “Remember how the salty breeze felt on our faces, and how the sand squished beneath our feet?”

My voice was as shaky as I was feeling. But soon I was so lost in the memory that I forgot how scared and helpless I felt. The best part was that I could see that Max was starting to relax too. His face reflected the calmness I could feel flowing through his body. The hand that had tightly gripped mine was now just resting in my palm.

I knew the secret to making this kind of pain management technique really work was to incorporate all the senses in the images. Max needed to smell the smells, hear the sounds, feel the air on his skin, and see the beautiful, blue sky all in his mind’s eye. And he did.

When I could sense that it was harder for him to pay attention and that he was beginning to suffer the pain again, I’d just switch stories. That night we relived every trip we’d ever taken together. When I ran out of those, I began describing trips we had fantasized about.

During that long night, Max would drift off to sleep and I did too. But when the pain woke him, I started in on another travelogue. One nurse even asked if I was his travel agent.

By the next day, Max’s pain had eased and they were able to remove the ventilator. His first words were a scratchy, “I can’t believe you used that stuff on me!”

But the twinkle in his eye thanked me for that “voodoo” that I did so well.

Karen Rowinsky

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