Amanda Anderson, BSN, RN, CCRN, works as an intensive care nurse in New York City and is pursuing a master’s in administration from Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing at Hunter College.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, the bloated feeling from snack and rom-com binging proved my deepest suffering. Safe, dry, and bored on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I was little harmed by the storm. My commute across the park proved adventuresome, but I slept in my own bed; I had a bed.
As the city calmed in the weeks following, I watched my fellow New Yorkers erupt in volunteer revolutions. Feeling guilty about my idle skills, I signed up with New York City Department of Health’s Medical Reserve Corps, the organization staffing emergency shelters.
On my scheduled morning, I arrived to find the clinic behind an old door marked with a handwritten sign that said “Medical.” Inside, a crowded group of older professionals—MDs, NPs, social workers—listened as a frazzled and tired pediatrician gave shift report.
Few medical needs plagued the shelter, but one reported client stuck out—a feisty octogenarian evacuee, Ms. E. Her lengthy medication list suggested cardiac problems, and her arthritic frame limited her mobility. Stairs were out of the question.
Report dragged on. I left to find some work to do. Mostly, people seemed well situated. Families lounged with babies as toddlers played. Adults slept, men and women separately. Sun shone through dirty windows. It was early still; not much to do.
In the lone women’s room, I noticed a tiny woman talking with social workers. Her eyes suggested youth that her body denied—bright blue and round, animated and laughing, despite the surrounding stress. Ms. E, perhaps?
They soon caught me staring, and a social worker asked me to take her blood pressure. Ms. E felt dizzy. A call to her neighbor pained her.
Quickly, I returned with a cuff. Alone with Ms. E, I squeezed, deflated, listened. Normal. What else could I do for this woman? She seemed self-sufficient, almost happy. But did I catch a peek of fear underneath? Loneliness, too?
I stayed, sitting on an empty cot. It definitely beat the who-do-you-know-where-have-you-worked discussion between the providers next door. Feeling foolish, I asked Ms. E what she lacked (everything?). Just a shower, please. The showers lay out of her reach, down two flights of stairs. Not wanting to bother, Ms. E had passed a week without a proper wash.
“Would a basin full of warm, soapy water right here be okay?” I blurted, to my own surprise.
Why, yes, of course. Her excitement sealed my glamorous future of Sandy volunteerism: A bed bath.
Bed baths have played various roles throughout my career. As a young new grad in the ICU, I trained with a nurse who bathed every patient, every shift. Blood on the sheets? Bed bath. Horrific code? Bed bath. Post-op? Bed bath. I learned to manage critically ill patients, and to always keep them tidy and clean.
I now understand my preceptor’s hidden genius: I assess most thoroughly while bathing, and the ritual often serves as a vehicle of comfort and companionship with my patients.
But bed baths sometimes seem tedious to this experienced ICU nurse, menial even. What about my critical thinking skills? My desire to advocate? Do my feelings for my patient’s rehab and a family’s mental well-being count? Nah. Just make sure that bed bath gets done.
You can imagine my momentary chagrin at the idea of a bed bath in a hurricane shelter. Wasn’t it enough that the overeager MD had suggested I run to the pharmacy for supplies (“Oh, and coffee would be great, too, heh heh”), and that the Red Cross nurse could apparently only handle Band-aid and toothbrush duty, while the other providers discussed esoteric matters that posed no concern to these poor people? A bed bath? Really, how nurse-y.
I pushed this thought away. Ms. E had not showered in a week. She did not know if her apartment still stood. One pair of pants and a pushcart with a few belongings tied up in plastic bags was all she owned for certain. I could give her a bed bath, and it’d damn well be the best one I’d given yet.
First, a bowl. The overwhelmed facilities staff promised a custodial bucket. Thanks, but buckets for bleach water would not do for Ms. E’s soft, grandmotherly skin. In the cafeteria, I found a man, oddly enough, making guacamole. In front of him sat three unused prep bowls, perfect for a bed bath. He lent me one, conditional on its return (“Really? You want it back for your guacamole after a bed bath?”).
With towels, sudsy warm water, and a newspaper cover for the window to Ms. E’s room, we began. I washed her back, rubbed lotion on her shoulders, sprinkled baby powder on her skin (“Oooh! I’m a baby!” she giggled). After drying, I helped her don a fresh pair of underwear. We finished without too much spillage, indecent exposure, or anyone falling down.
Clean and safely clothed, Ms. E cried softly, praying aloud for everyone’s return home. I listened, then sternly joked, “Everything will work out. But not if we don’t do something about your crazy hair, Ms. E.” Her laugh cackled, and in her eyes, I saw bright stars sparkling in a clear winter sky.
We spent the afternoon together, Ms. E and I, sans my nursing skills. We talked, read the newspaper, shared lunches, and slowly walked the halls. Shortly before my shift ended, we learned she’d return home the next day. Restored power, a bus for her. Calling her friend, tears shone in her eyes. Finally, good news.
I wonder about Ms. E sometimes, and I thank her a little bit, too. She helped me remember something very important about this job I do. Nursing isn’t often about heroics or glamour, despite my frequent attempts to prove otherwise. Being a nurse is about the bed bath stuff—seeing past pride and intellectualism, finding the true, unspoken needs of our patients as humans. Wherever they are.