This past Saturday, I took my CNA skills test. I counted a pulse and respirations, listened to a blood pressure, and performed three critical skills, all under the measuring eye of an experienced nurse. How did it go? I passed. How did it feel? I was terrified.
This was well outside my comfort zone. For the blood pressure, we used a teaching stethoscope — one bell, two earpieces. As I listened and wrote down what I thought was the number, the nurse listened on the other end and wrote down what she heard. I had to come within six points on either end, systolic and diastolic, to pass. I took the blood pressure three times. The first two times, I heard bugger all. The third time was the charm; the blood stopped pounding in my own ears long enough for me to hear it pounding through my testing partner’s brachial artery.
As for the critical skills, I drew a good card: ambulating with a gait belt, perineal care on a female, and a back rub. As I’d spent days practicing bed bath and range of motion, my problem was to be as detailed as possible, moving slowly, and assuming nothing. On a skills test, you have to narrate each move like you’re David Attenborough. I knock on the door. I identify the patient. I introduce myself. I greet the patient. I explain the procedure. I wash my hands. (Oh, how many times I washed my hands!)
There is nothing, nothing at all, to connect the world I’m in now to the world of an itinerant English major. My life as a Master’s student in Creative Writing, and then as PhD candidate in Old English — nope, nothing thing. My later work at the University of Idaho Library in Acquisitions? No, no connection. The YWCA? Freelance writing and editing? Strange lands, wholly foreign. When I decided at 42 to become a nurse, I thought I could see a clear bridge between my old life and my new plan. And then I took a job in a nursing home.
I work the day shift. I get up at five in the morning; my shift begins at 5:45. I don’t have paid sick leave. I don’t have paid vacation. I can’t afford it. I started at 30 cents above minimum wage, the trade-off being that I’d get excellent working experience, a free CNA class, and a taste of what was to come in nursing. What’s that taste like so far? Hard bloody work. Frequent frustration. Deep satisfaction. If you don’t like people, don’t be a CNA, and for God’s sake don’t be a nurse because at the end of the day, people are all you’ve got. You’ve either helped them or you haven’t. You’ve either laughed with them, or you’ve cried. You’ve either gotten one hell of a good story to take home, or you’ve worn yourself out for nothing.
I had hoped that being a nurse would be a good fit with being a writer, and I believe that it will be. Being a CNA certainly has been. I change the names, disguise the identities, and jumble up the facts, but every story has a kind of immediate truth that I could only dream about when I was sitting in my university classroom. Then, I wondered how I could get out into the world. Now, I’m soaking in it.