This Is Bill

This Is Bill

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

This Is Bill

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong—because someday you will have been all of these.

George Washington Carver

It was one of those days in the nursing profession that you just have to get through. The workload was heavy, the pace frenetic. Everybody wanted something from me, and they all seemed to want it at the same time. As I hurriedly finished my lunch, in my mind I organized the tasks I needed to complete that afternoon. It was going to be a tight fit, but I thought I could get everything done.

But as soon as I returned to the floor, things began to unravel.

I got a report on an unexpected admission from one of my coworkers: “They brought some old guy up from the unit to die.” Without waiting for further explanation, I headed toward what had been my only empty bed. It was now occupied by an elderly gentleman, and as I entered the room I knew that he had already done what he had been sent there to do. Without fanfare, without attendance, without anyone even knowing it, this person had left the world.

I was filled with righteous indignation, as I made my way back to the nurses’ station to start the long and time-consuming process that surrounds a death in the hospital. For me it had always been important to see that someone was with my patients as they died. As a matter of principle, I felt that we had failed this man. How could the nurses from the ICU let his family go home when his death was so imminent? Why had he been dropped on my doorstep in the last few minutes of his life? And where was his family, anyway? As the questions whirred through my mind, anger rose in me like bitter bile. I was mad at everybody, including the poor old man who had died so unceremoniously on my watch.

Unable to reach anyone at the phone number listed under next of kin, I called the designated funeral home and went back to his room to try to garner some information from his meager personal effects.

Stacked in the corner in standard-issue hospital plastic bags were his belongings: a worn pair of work boots, a cap embroidered with a local feed company’s logo, a faded pair of bib overalls. In one of the pockets I found a wallet but no driver’s license or other identification. My frustration mounted. As I started to stuff it back into the pocket I saw a piece of yellow paper peeking out from one of the sections. I opened it and began to read. It was written with big block letters and had the telltale look of a palsied hand.

“Well, honey,” it said, “if you are reading this, it probably means that things didn’t go so good for me this time. I know you did everything you could.” It went on for a while, sharing some memories. At the end it was signed simply “Love, Bill.” Tears of shame and sorrow filled my eyes as I realized that this letter was to me and my coworkers. Indeed, I had just lost an old friend.

Bill was everybody’s friend. He had no real family, just one cousin in a distant state. He had outlived the rest of his family and his contemporaries. For the past several years he had been fighting the demons of old age. Repeated hospital visits brought him to the floor where I worked. He always came with a crooked smile and a kind word. He came with big floppy old ears that were interested in all that was going on in the world and in others’ lives. He came with a simple wisdom and a gentle nature toward his fellow man.

“Did you find out who this guy belongs to?” asked one of my coworkers as he shot past the room to keep pace with his own schedule. When I didn’t answer he backtracked and peeked into the room. I stood crying silently and contemplating the face of a man that I knew so well, yet hadn’t recognized at all. Swelling, illness, and death had transformed him. The love that he radiated in life had left along with his soul.

“Don’t you know who this is?” I asked sadly. “He belongs to us. This is Bill.”

He left in silence to spread the word. Soon there was a small army of nurses at the door.

Gently my coworkers helped me with the postmortem cares. We talked about Bill and all that he had meant to us. We remembered the time that he brought us homemade bread. Since he could no longer drive, he carefully coordinated the timing of his baking with the bus schedule so that the bread would arrive still warm. We recalled the time that he brought trinkets to everyone at Christmas, making two trips on the bus in the bitter cold so he could deliver his gifts to each of the shifts personally.

In due time the funeral home attendant arrived and Bill was transported to the elevator with an honor guard of sorts. Every nurse on duty stopped what they were doing and came to escort our old friend off the floor for the last time.

Soon enough we were all back to the tasks at hand. Our patients were concerned with their own problems. Few were aware that a death had occurred on the unit that day. But on that day Bill taught me something profound and lasting that has guided me throughout my nursing career, and that something is this . . . that everyone is someone’s Bill.

In nursing school they taught me about psychology. They taught me about the fight or flight response and about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They taught me about the different ways people tend to respond to the stress of hospitalization. But nothing in a book or from Freud or Maslow could teach me what Bill did.

There are days in nursing when things don’t go well. Sometimes patients don’t act in ways that you might expect, and sometimes they don’t even act in ways that make much sense. Pain and fear and frustration have chipped away at the core of the person until you can’t recognize who they really are. These are the days that I make myself stop and ask a simple question: “Don’t you know who this is?” And the answer comes. This is someone who has a life that you don’t even know about. This is someone who has hopes and dreams and fears. This is someone who is loved and cherished by people that you haven’t even met.

This is Bill.

Susan Stava

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