Sling & Swathe

An ER nurse, broken/mending

Month: August, 2012


When I was a kid, we had a large fish tank on our kitchen bar counter.  This was one of those rectangular, shabby-looking tanks which can also double as a hamster cage, and was mostly populated by the five-cent goldfish that aspiring poor people buy.  I’m pretty sure my parents had it as an alternative form of entertainment, being that our television at the time only had six channels – and four of those were letters.  No joke.  Also, because I had a burst of industriousness at age 6 and decided to “wash” the back of the television, the only colors on the screen were red, white, and black.  Mr T from “The A-Team”?  He was black.  Hannibal was red, though.  Even the army green of M*A*S*H was red.  To make matters worse, my parents had removed the knob from the “on” button on the set, ostensibly in an effort to keep us from watching a red-colored Benny Hill running around with scantily clad crimson women while they went on their evening walk.  Too bad for them my teenage siblings discovered that needle-nosed pliers are a perfect tool for turning on broken sets, and we spent many blissful, stolen minutes watching the delightful Mr. Hill and other shows with corruptive potential, such as “The Jeffersons” or “WKRP In Cincinnati” (Gasp!).

But I digress.  In our fish tank was a black fish (I’m pretty sure he cost 10 cents.  My parents must have been feeling rich that day) named General Lee.  Don’t get excited – he wasn’t named after the tough muscle car of “Dukes Of Hazzard” fame.  Nope.  He was named after THE General Lee.  As in Robert E.  My dad is a history buff.  Specifically, the Civil War.  I know this sounds exotic and all, but if you had spent the bulk of your childhood vacations at Florida’s Civil War sites such as Olustee and Dade Battlefields, you wouldn’t be as impressed.  Trust me when I tell you that when you’ve seen one mosquito-infested pine forest, you’ve seen them all.  I mean, the park rangers did their level best, but the only emotion I ever felt when I looked at the displays of stuffed Florida wildlife (and what does this consist of, seriously?  A raccoon and a turtle?  Maybe an anorexic-looking panther?  Sigh) was a deep and abiding sadness that I wasn’t born somewhere more, well, real.

At any rate, this fish – General Lee – had an alarming (and entertaining) habit of occasionally leaping out of the tank and onto the counter.  I’m not sure how many times he pulled this Greg Louganis move, but at least enough times to guarantee him a spot in our family history.  I was reminded of this leaping black fish on Friday when we went kayaking – and while holding a flimsy bait bucket full of live shrimp on my lap, one of those little buggers decided to do a triple sow-cow into the air and land right on my crotch.  I would like to say that I had my “Mama-Is-Awesome” face on, that I carelessly flicked it away with a slightly-annoyed look on my face.  But, since we all know that liars go directly to Hell, I will admit without shame that I screamed.  I screamed in that prolonged, high-pitched bloody-murder shriek that only little girls can do.  I mean, seriously, what the hell???  I was already a bit freaked out by the contents of the bait bucket – to be frank, I sort of felt a little out of breath when I opened the lid for the first time and looked inside. There were 24 LIVE shrimp in there.  And they all had eyes…which were looking directly at me.  Plus, there was some weird ball-shaped grey matter inside their shell which The Dude assured me was a brain but I’m pretty sure was either a) shrimp poop, b) intestines, or c) a little beating shrimp heart (which makes me wonder – do shrimp have brains?  Or a heart?  Or the sudden, uncontrollable urge to LIVE, Damnit!?).  I was also mildly disturbed by the thought lurking in the back of my mind that, mmmm…these guys would look really good in some golden tempura batter with a side of sweet chili sauce.

So the wet shrimp is in my crotch, I am screaming like a psych patient who mated with a Banshee, the kids are staring in silent amazement at their mother’s cowardice, and The Dude is doubled over in hysterics while simultaneously attempting to steer the vehicle and hold the bait bucket that I am about to toss out the window.  It was, in short, not my finest hour.

I think, though, that I did manage to redeem myself as the evening wore on.  The “General Lee” shrimp ended up on the van’s floor mat until I gritted my teeth and forced myself to pick him up and return him to his salty brethren.  Then I took children #2 and #4 out in the kayak – way out, to where it gets kind of deep and creepy and you have the profound awareness that more life is circling below the surface than the human mind cares to contemplate – and enjoyed some quiet talk with each of them (I might add that I used all my best nautical terms as frequently as possible that night – boat channel, tide, prow, windward, poop deck.  I mostly just jumbled them up in random sentences.  The kids were suitably impressed).  Then I returned to shore, dragging my kayak through the muck like Bear Grylls on a good day, and helped the kids fish for seaweed.  I did have a brief conversation with myself at the bait bucket (this was witnessed by child #2.  Luckily he is just as weird as me, so he wasn’t phased in the slightest) about not letting fear rule my life, it’s just a shrimp after all and it doesn’t even have something with which to bite/sting/mangle me so get your ass together and bait the damn hook already!!!!!  And, I’m proud to say, I did it.  I reached into that bait bucket, pulled out a shrimp, and stuck it on my line.  Yes, it was the smallest, least offensive, and most dead-looking of the bunch.  And no, I didn’t catch anything.  Except maybe the slightest sliver of confidence that maybe, one day, I can be more of the Mama I always wanted to be.




The Dude and I purchased two kayaks this past weekend.  Since his birthday is coming up (his 34th, which, he likes to remind me, is still a year less than his lovely wife) I treated him to a “Dude Day” where we could go and do whatever he wanted, sans kiddies.  If you’ve never experienced the pure joy of shopping with five children under the age of nine in tow, you seriously haven’t lived.  So you can imagine how liberating it was to casually stroll the aisles of Dick’s sporting goods without having to worry about your three-year-old ingesting fake deer’s urine or catching your nine-year-old taking a lingering look at the wall-sized poster advertising women’s sports bras.

The Dude ended up selecting some fishing rods and gear, and while we attempted to catch something, anything later that night, the notion of kayaks struck us as a good one.


So now there are two small vessels in my garage, and I have to say that I’m pretty excited about using them this coming Friday.  Our plan (Ha! more like foolish daydream) is to take children numbers 1 through 4 for late-afternoon fishing and kayaking.  I say “daydream” because in my mind I picture The Dude, wearing his new fishing stuff, standing serenely in the water while he reels in the catch of a lifetime.  The children will be happily engaged, of course – little #4 will be daintily building a sandcastle, and numbers 1 and 2 will be out with their dad, fishing like the big guys that they are.  I will be patiently showing child #3 how to bait a hook and cast a line, and when he trots off to fish for himself, I will barbecue hot dogs and the day will end with us all chowing down – happily smiling and cooperative – on a perfectly spread table cloth.  Red-checked, of course.


This is what the irrational, illogical part of my brain has lead me to believe will happen.  But my cynical, serious-minded lobe tells me that the trip will is more likely to include any one of the following scenarios: a)  an over-turned kayak and a traumatized child who will probably develop some sort of Roman Polanski-ish water phobia, b) a fish hook in a ear, possibly an eye, c)  general sunburn, mosquito bites, and spanks all around, or d) a return trip filled with bitter wailing and gnashing of teeth because nobody caught a fish.  It’s all about creating happy memories, folks!


To be completely honest, fishing makes me feel inadequate.  It reminds me of how disappointed I am in the person I’ve become.  It makes me feel like a fraud.  When I was little, I was not the sweet, demure girl that you all know and love now.  I was 100% tomboy.  I was constantly filthy.  I was nearly always in a tree or catching lizards (which, like all Florida kids, I tormented into opening their mouths and then clipped them onto my ears like reptilian jewelry), or investigating cicada shells, or pretending to be some sort of combination army person/survivalist/shipwrecked precocious child (I had a very active inner life, clearly.)  I couldn’t be bothered to go inside the house for a bandaid if I happened to cut myself.  You know what I did?  I rubbed sap in it.  Or maybe some dirt.  Yes.  That’s how I rolled.  I still wonder how I didn’t get tetanus or anthrax.


Anyway, the truth is that, even though I was the female Steve Irwin of my neighborhood, now I can’t even bear to be within a foot of a lizard.  I might touch a cicada shell.  With a broom.  And climbing a tree?  I tried to do a handstand the other day and nearly broke my face, so any sort of arborist dreams I may have had are strictly out.  And the thought of touching a fish – of putting a live, squirming shrimp onto a hook – is, to put it mildly, totally unappealing to me.  I had to force myself to wade out into the knee-deep brackish water to fish with The Dude this past week.  All of these things make me think, “What have I become?”  I never wanted to be the squeamish mom.  I wanted to be the jack-of-all-trades mother.  The one who, when her children come running into the house screaming that they’ve just seen a snake, sets her jaw, grabs the garden hoe, then marches out to the yard and cuts its head off with one fell swoop.  Her children are gathered behind her, staring open-mouthed in wordless admiration (I picture her with some sort of red bandana tied around her head and a large, white apron flapping) and they are suddenly very aware that Mama can take care of it.  Mama is in charge.  Mama is awesome.


So, my plan this Friday is to totally fake it.  I’m going to grab those wriggling shrimp and jam them on the hook like it’s my job.  I’m not going to wince when I step on something slimy and moveable in the water.  And when I reel in that mackerel, I’m going the pick it up without saying, “Shit!  Gross!!” and I’m going to fillet that sucker with nothing but my teeth and my bare hands.  And even if my ‘foolish daydream’ completely falls apart and the day ends with tears and disappointment, my kids are going to lay their heads down that night thinking that their Mama is awesome.



I am not afraid to ask for help, or to admit that I am completely ignorant about a given subject.  It has never bothered me to turn to my colleagues and say, “I have no idea what I’m doing.  Would you kindly assist me so that I don’t end up killing my patient?”  Take blood administration, for example.  I am absolutely, utterly hopeless at giving blood.  No, not the patient identification part.  I get that.  I mean, cross-checking a bunch of numbers isn’t exactly rocket science.  It’s the actual administration of it.  I can never remember which clamps to open, and when to shut them.  So I end up either fluid overloading my patient, or priming the line with blood.  On top of this, I make a huge mess.  I don’t know how I do it, but somehow I end up with drops of blood on my hands, on the floor, on my scrubs.  It is so bad that I actually close the door when I’m hanging blood, just to save myself the humiliation that is sure to come when another nurse walks by and asks me why my patient’s room looks like a scene out of Sweeney Todd.  So if you ever take report from me and it looks like I just clocked out of a twelve-hour shift at the Chicago stockyards, you’ll know right off the bat that one of your patients recieved blood products that day.


I used to think of my willingness to embrace and publicize my weaknesses as a strength – and I guess there is a part of me that still does – but in the ER setting it has proved otherwise.  You see, in my repertoire of facial expressions, I do not have what is called a “game face.”  This is an emotionless, nonchalant face that says (with a shrug of the shoulders), “I’m a bad-ass.  And??”  I have discovered that, at work, I have approximately three facial expressions.  The first one, a look I like to call “serious/focused/pissed” is the one I use the most.  I’m not entirely aware that I am making this face, but my hope is that it conveys to my co-workers and patients the mostly-false notion that I am deep in thought about my patient’s lab values and how the medications I am about to administer are going to be incorporated into the mental care plan I am currently developing for them in my brain.  In short, I think my “serious/focused/pissed” face makes me look smart; in reality it probably just makes me look angrily constipated.


My second expression has been dubbed “quizzical” by a colleague of mine, who has caught me on various occasions pursing my lips and knitting my brows together.  I’m not gonna lie here – what he actually saw was me in the middle of an imaginary conversation with a patient/family member/doctor who had just done something to irritate me.  I am usually having these inner dialogs when I am pulling meds (because narcotics + distraction = fabulous survey results!) and I’m pretty sure they are my brain’s way of attempting to process the irrationality and illogic that are a nurse’s daily bread.  The conversation goes something like this: “Well, Patient X, why in the hell did you come to the ER if you don’t want treatment?  Yes, I know your primary care doctor told he was going to have you direct-admitted, but he is a liar.  He didn’t want to be bothered with the paperwork, so he sent you here to the ER to rot.  I’m sure he is probably at home, snuggled in his 1000-thread count sheets with his arms wrapped tightly around his trophy wife, dreaming of gold-plated caviar and his upcoming vacation in Bora-Bora.  You, meanwhile, are stuck here – wearing a back-less gown and dining on yesterday’s turkey sandwich.  And puh-lease don’t even try to tell me that your call light has been on for thirty minutes because I have been standing out in the hall directly across from your room talking about how irritating you are and the light just came on for the first time two minutes ago.” (This is the point in my little day dream where I dramatically walk over to the call light, yank it out of the wall, and drop it in the bio-hazard bin.  Then I dust my hands off, give a bright smile, and say, “There.  Ah, that’s muuuuccchh better.”


My third look – and thankfully I haven’t needed to employ this one very much – is sheer panic.  This is the expression I would wear if, say, my patient coded in front of me – which is the exact situation in which a “game face” is most needed.  For example, the other day a fellow nurse (whom I respect very much) hit the Code Blue button.  Once we figured out what, exactly, that alarm sound meant and where it was coming from (the Code Blue button is much under-used in the ER.  Staff mostly just yell out from the patient’s room) several nurses and medics made their way to her room, where she calmly turned to us and said, “He’s not breathing.”  She said this in the same exact tone that you might use when you ask your spouse to pass the broccoli or to tell your child that their pants are unzipped.  Totally calm, emotionless, flat – and yet she was in complete control of the situation.  She was bagging the patient like she was born to do it, while the rest of us rushed in, pink-cheeked with adrenaline.  She was, in short, wearing her game face.  See, if this exact situation happened to me, I would either a) stick my head out and yell for help, eyes wide as saucers and shaking with terror or b) play it safe by scanning the ER for the doctor/nurse/physician’s assistant who least intimidates me and, in my best I’m-trying-to-look-calm-but-it’s-really-just-a-thin-veneer-beneath-which-is -a-quivering-mass-of-RN-flavored-pudding voice say, “Um, would you mind taking a quick peek at my patient?”  Yes, option B does take up a few more life-saving seconds than exercising option A, but it saves me from the humiliation of looking panicked – and it is all about me, right?


I’m hoping that over the course of my career, I will learn how to balance these two things.  That one day I will find that harmonious spot where a willingness to learn and calm confidence in crisis are not mutually exclusive.  That in the near future I will have a “game face” of my own – and it won’t simply be a mask to hide my fear or ignorance.  Until then, I’ll stick with “serious/focused/pissed” and “quizzical” – and hope that nobody catches on.