I will never forget my first night shift on B and F (the names of the two post-polio wards). When I arrived on shift the ward was already pretty much dark, aside from the night lights in the halls and the nursing station which was brightly lit.
All was quiet, except for the hum of motors running and many soft hissing sounds that I already knew came from the iron lungs as they pumped pressure in and out of my patients chest cavities. The evening staff gave report in a very hushed way - no loud talking, no laughing out loud, and no banging of cupboard doors or drawers.
I was the head nurse for the night, and working with me that night was a Practical Nurse, an orderly and an aide. Between the 4 of us we cared for 20 completely paralyzed patients, all with tracheotomies and all on either respirators or in iron lungs.
I was a hot summer night, and there was a thunderstorm brewing. I remember feeling pretty much scared out of my mind for fear the power would go out. The respirators all had battery back up - but if the power should fail - the only way to keep the iron lungs going was to hand pump the bellows at the back of the iron lung - a procedure which required one person per iron lung, and a lot of muscle. We had more than 4 iron lungs operating every night.
Within minutes of the evening staff departing I heard a clicking sound - sort of like someone clacking their tongue to the top of their mouth. "That's Hugh", the aide said as she made her way to a room down the hall. A few minutes later there was a cute little whistle, "That's Bert," and then.... a long "Nuuurrrsssseee"... "That's Ray". A really loud clicking... "That would be Dave." and so the night went.
Each and every patient had their own call... it was their only way of communicating their need of help.
The patients who clicked, did so because they did not have the breath capacity to call out, or because the glass plug had been removed from their tracheotomy rendering them speechless.
Those who could whistle did so - but softly, and each patient had their own distinctive tune.
It was the most bizarre thing I had ever experienced in my limited nursing experience, but in a way it was also the most touching thing I had ever experienced. In order to help these people, one had to really get to know them.
As different as their night calls were, so were their personalities. You have to consider that these 20 people had been struck down in the prime of their lives. They had all lost their livelihoods, some had lost their spouses and families (some spouses just got tired of waiting for them to get well - so they left, or divorced and moved on). Some never saw their children grow up, and a few even lost their young children and babies to Polio.
You wouldn't know this upon first meeting with any of them... those stories only came with years of working, and yes loving these very special people.
Instead they lived through you. Never had I experienced people who were so hungry to hear about my life. Within days they all knew more about me, than I almost knew about myself. They were quick to smile, to laugh, to tease and to listen. They had nothing but time, and they wasted none of it, but gave of it constantly. They never squabbled or talked behind each other's back, but they knew exactly what was happening down the hall to a fellow patient almost before we did.
They gave gifts, to each other and to the staff who cared for them - and no one turned their gifts away. It wasn't taboo to say thanks so much for thinking about me, and give a peck on the cheek - be it a male or a female cheek. They gave advice, as if they had lived outside of those hospital walls all their lives, and they gave their love for all time - whether you gave a good needle, or not!
When they were cross - which was not often - they said sorry - and meant it. When they were happy - they included you in their joy - and meant it. When they cried - they accepted your comfort - because they knew YOU meant it.
Frank, Bert, Ray, Peggy, Dave D, Hugh, Menno, Maurice, Mary, Pauline, Dave B, Betty, Mae, Trudy, Martha, Ted, Charlie, Burt, Jimmie and Paul - and while I would hard-pressed to recall many, if any of my patients names over the years - these names come quickly, and with them, memories that still fill my heart with joy and pride and love.
I learned many valuable life lessons just listening and watching them live their lives on the second floor of a very small hospital. This world was their oyster, we were their family and they lived each and every day to the fullest.
I count myself blessed to have know each and every one of these very special friends.