Libby Kurz, BSN, MFA, RN, works as an OR nurse. Formerly a nurse in the U.S. Air Force, she lives in Virginia with her family. Her work has been published in several literary magazines. To read more of her writing, visit www.libbykurz.com.
I often wonder why the world is the way it is. Why, above all other possibilities, do we have two eyes to see, a mouth that tastes, a body that needs food and fluid to sustain itself, but a mind that can entertain thoughts far beyond the realm of the physical world? The more I think about it, the stranger life seems.
People are odd, too. I’m always blown away by our quirks. There’s a surgeon I work with who has to eat his cereal every morning in the shower. He had a shelf built into his shower just for his cereal bowl. One of my coworkers has a pet scorpion and two snakes, but she hates spiders. An acquaintance of mine eats mayonnaise and peanut butter sandwiches.
Working as a nurse provides an environment where these ironies and oddities of life seem even more pronounced. I work in the operating room, and while patients are asleep under anesthesia, we discuss current events, the ages and stages of our children, or the latest drama on reality TV. As surgeons excise cancerous tissue or saw through a breastbone to expose a beating heart, we listen to soft rock or oldies or top-40 music stations. I associate Duran Duran with the smell of antiseptic and the sight of blood. It is a peculiar blend of the significant and the superficial.
A while ago, I had a patient who’d experienced a miscarriage and underwent a D&C procedure to remove the deceased fetus from her womb. She began to cry as we took her back to the OR. We tried to comfort her as she drifted off to sleep. The mood in the room was silent and somber as we lifted her legs into the stirrups and prepped her body for what was to come. A small machine suctioned the lining of her uterus, collecting its contents into a small plastic filter. We labeled the specimen “products of conception” and sent it to the lab. When the patient woke up we told her, “It’s over. It’s all over. You did great.”
I knew this wasn’t entirely true, though. I knew it was just the beginning, because I had experienced the same procedure myself, many years before. It is an experience a woman never forgets. Though the D&C procedure marked the physical end of pregnancy for this patient, it was just the beginning of grief and healing to come.
As I left work that day, I sat at a stoplight in my sweltering car. I watching the cars pass by through the busy intersection, the air thick and hazy from the summer humidity. I was surrounded by strip malls on all sides, people coming and going from work, running errands, rushing around this hectic world to tend to the daily demands of life—groceries, dry cleaning, pharmacy prescriptions. Meanwhile, my patient was back in the recovery room, waking up from anesthesia, waking up to the reality of a loss that is hard to quantify.
This is what it is to be a nurse—this straddling of the radically different areas of life. This is the aspect of nursing I struggled with during my first year out of nursing school, over 10 years ago, and still sometimes struggle with today. As a nurse, so much of my job deals with the physical matter of life—vital signs, lab results, radiology reports—tangible phenomena I can observe with my own senses and measure in quantifiable outcomes. But what of the deeper things that we can’t assess or treat—the deeper emotional and spiritual aspects of human existence?
In the medical field, we learn to talk about life and death in detached terms such as “products of conception.” We have ways of discussing things that are far away from our actual comprehension as human beings living life in this world. We sing along with the lyrics of pop music and discuss our obsession with The Bachelor as we perform life-altering surgeries for our patients.
The bizarre mingling of the daily with the eternal, the physical with the metaphysical, used to disturb me as a new nurse, but I am coming to realize that the microcosm of the operating room merely represents the reality that, as human beings, we are asked to navigate a world full of paradoxes, inconsistencies, and ironies. I still consider it sacred ground.