In preparation for nursing school, I was a nurse’s aide at St. Francis Hospital in 1969-1971. We had rules, lots of rules. It was a time of very stringent delineation of roles, each with its own strict uniform. Aides were always clad in flesh-colored panty hose and white leather shoes. We donned white short sleeved blouses beneath our polyester turquoise pinafores that rustled like a plastic shower curtain with each movement.
5 North was my home away from home, my workplace. There was a mixed bag of what I would later understand to be medical and surgical patients. The area housed 40-48 patients. At 7 A.M. aides hit the floor in full stride like dogs from a starting gate. From 7- 11 am all patients were to be fed, bathed and to have beds changed on a daily basis. This was always at least 6- 8 patients. Additionally, employee culture required a scheduled 15 minute break for breakfast at 8:30 or 9:00 am. This break, meant breakfast in the cafeteria. It was a required meeting.
I scurried delivering food trays at 7 A.M. Attending to my assigned patients, lifting food covers, dressing cereals, dousing syrup on pancakes and peppering eggs. Nurses’ aides spread butter and jam, spooning teaspoons of oatmeal and cream of wheat into resentful or dysfunctional mouths. Daily, it was a meal devoid of gratitude or satisfaction.
Lunch meant the whole process started again. It was physically demanding job even for a young robust woman with lots of strength. The nurse assistants’ focus was to provide every comfort for patients and recording of their inputs and outputs. I&O’s- inputs and outputs- anything ingested or expelled. The law was that 2- 2-30 PM was the only time the aides were ever allowed to sit during the shift besides their own meals. We patrolled the halls even if patient call lights did not beckon. We looked for things to do such as watering plants, tidying rooms, talking with patients and giving them back rubs.
So, week after week as the summer wore on, I showed up ready and able on 5 N. Midsummer patient N569 was admitted. Mr. Terry was in for tests. He was maybe 5’8-10, portly, middle aged (whatever that meant at that time to me). I think he may have been 40-50 maybe. He was bored, grumpy and seemed crotchety. The first couple of days he didn’t have much to say. I was determined to be upbeat and polite. Dutifully, I asked him every afternoon if he would like a backrub. He always said no, not today.
By day four or five Mr. Perry was getting bored and antsy. He would stand at his doorway in modest pajama pants and crew neck, white tee shirt to watch the unit activities. He was just trying to pass the time. We would exchange banter and was confident that I was winning him over. In response to my back rub question, he finally acquiesced said, “OK.” He’d give it a try.
He sat down on his bed. I asked him to remove his tee shirt and lie on his side or stomach while I washed my hands and got a fresh towel. He was prone on the bed and covered with a sheet. When I returned, I asked him if I could begin and he said yes. The bottle of body lotion issued to every patient stood on the bedside table. I grasped the sheet to expose his back but instead of flesh I was met with a coat of thick, dark fur over his entire back. I’m so glad he couldn’t see my face because my jaw dropped and eyes bugged wide. This was like gorilla fur.
I took a deep breath, squirted a generous dollop of lotion into my left palm and pressed my right palm to it to warm just as we’d be taught. Then I began to moisten his back. First attempt spread the lotion, my fingers became entwined in the hemp. Determined to complete the task I continued to lather the lotion which only matted and knotted the hair coat. The constant snags pulls, knots had to hurt. The lotion seemed to lather. It not pleasant for either of us, I was inept and embarrassed he was being tortured. I imagine it was a similar sensation to plucking nose hair. He finally suggested I stop, I think he said that he’d had enough.
Gratefully I tried to mop up the sodden macramé but he excused himself and hid in the shower. Fortunately, he didn’t hang around his doorway the next day. Mr. Perry finally went for some surgery and they shaved acres of hair off his front and back for surgical site and IV’s.
Our back rub disaster had been a blessing in disguise. I cared him postoperatively when he hurt and must have felt like a dog with mange with so many skin-exposed parts. He came to accept my help with bathing and other personal care with less embarrassment and even gratefulness. As he was gaining strength and looking forward to going home, Mr. Perry fell to the floor with an acute myocardial infarction. Fortunately he lived but he now had broken ribs following the CPR and was with us for another couple of weeks. But he finally escaped.
I got a lot of mileage recounting the horror of the hairy backrub to my student nurse friends and family. A couple of years later, I nearly swallowed my tongue. While on an altar as a bridesmaid wedding as guests approached for communion, our eyes met and quickly averted.It was Mr. Perry! It was clear that we both remembered his back rub.