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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nurses at Night or who washes the bodies?

Vintage nurse, they have come a long way...

This is something I have pondered for several years. When my eldest daughter (the now married one) was still at home and had just started her first nursing job, she worked nights.

I would drive her to the hospital she was employed at for two reasons:

 1. We simply did not have enough cars (2 cars with 6 drivers)
 2. She was concerned; that after working all night, the drive in the morning home on the expressway would prove to be too much for her tired brain (I was concerned too).

So the nights she worked, which was three out of every seven, I would bring her to her place of employment for a start time of 7:15 PM and on the drive there listen to all of her thoughts and concerns about: life, the universe and everything (to borrow a phrase form Douglas Adams) and leave her there for the night. Then I would make the return trip in the morning at 7:30 AM after I slept all night and she had worked all night, so presumably, I was well rested while she was tired to the bone.

At this time in history, my husband I still had all four of our (almost) adult children living at home with us. We have two girls and two boys, for the record.

After ferrying her to the hospital, I would go home and finish eating dinner and clean up the dishes. After leaving to drive her, often the inmates of our house would scatter which meant; I would come home to dinner on the table or clean up in various states of in-completion  Which to be honest was not glamorous. I would call upstairs and capture anyone I was able to, and begin the clean up. Then I would sew or iron or do some leftover work from my employment, take the dog for a walk with my husband. I would get ready for bed, read for a couple of hours, then turn in. Nothing terribly exciting.

Before I drifted off to sleep, I would think of my daughter and hope that her night was going well. It felt a bit strange to think that as my day was ending, hers was continuing to go strong.

One morning as I was making a pot of tea and preparing my breakfast of bran and strawberries, my other daughter said something that gave me great pause for thought.
 She said: "Isn't it strange to think that Emmy has to wash the bodies of the people that die during her shift at the hospital?"
 I turned and faced her with amazement.
 "She does what?"  I asked.

Before I could question her further about this new information, I had to run off to the hospital and retrieve my worn out child.  I thought about it all the way there. When I arrived and was parked out front waiting for her to appear from her labors, I thought about it some more.  My lovely, tired daughter finally staggered through the sliding doors of the ER and into my car and we started the drive home. I saw her so differently now. I deferentially inquired of her if this was true, that she washed the bodies of the patients that had died in the night.

She nodded sleepily and said: "two died last night. I barely got one taken care of, then my other patient went."
I was stunned to silence. Washed two bodies in the night. At twenty-four years of age. I was fifty and had never even touched a body that wasn't alive until I was forty-five, let alone washed one.

I waited to see if she would share more. She did not. Just dozed off.  When we arrived home she pulled her body out of the car, into the house, up the stairs to the bath. I went at sat at the kitchen table in wonderment. My daughter KR was sitting at the table.
"How was her night", she asked.
I said "Two of her patients died in the night."

"Poor thing. She takes it so hard. She has to tell the family, then after she give the family time with their loved one, she has to take all of the tubes out of the body, get a basin of warm water, wash the body, and hair. She wrangles the body into the bag, calls the morgue to come get the body."

"How does she do this not once, but twice in one night?" asking not really expecting the answer I received.

"Oh, she sings to the body as she washes them. Emmy once told me that she hopes it comforts the patient as it certainly comforts herself."

"What does she sing?" I asked.

"Em says; mostly lullabies and hymns she knows by heart. She told me about one little old lady that was wearing hot pink nail polish, that got her the most, the nail polish. It made it seem more personal somehow. She could see the lady's daughter or some friend putting it on for her. Emmy sometimes cries the whole time she is doing it. The older nurses often laugh at her and tell her she is going to have to toughen up or she will never make it."

KR and I look at each other and both say almost at the same time: Kind of hard.

I had always thought some other person, not the nurses, or in particular, not my daughter, did this ritual. Someone more qualified, someone that it did not matter to so much or someone I don't know nor have to think about.  This task has been done for centuries by family members for their loved ones and now it is done by my loved one.

So, now as I lay in my bed, sliding into slumber, I say a silent prayer for all of the night nurses.


  1. This brought tears to my eyes.

    1. I understand. I felt that way when I first learned of her having to do this. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Ditto. I am glad I am safely alone in the office as I read this, not in the shop with the guys. Heartbreaking to think of.


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