Lost On Call

–Ann Neuser Lederer

was on call, and tense. Newly employed as a visiting nurse on the edges of
Appalachia, I had recently moved to this place
from a large rust belt city hundreds of miles to the north.
Our territory extended down to the river cliffs,
and outward through patchworks of farms.
I didn’t know it very well, especially in the dark.
It was a weeknight. I was tired from the day’s work.
The beeper jolted me awake.
I fumbled into my clothes, neatly folded nearby, awaiting.
I was called out to a place I had never been, on the edge of the county,
to a death of a patient I had never known.
It was the middle of the night. There were no lights anywhere.
I peered at the directions written on the paper.
Ever so slowly I made my way down the winding tree-lined lane.
It was one of those roads with steep drops on both sides and no shoulders.
Only the halo ahead, created by the headlights,
hinted which way the next curve might lead.
As I turned a bend, I spotted from the corner of my eye an odd red glow,
low to the ground, seemingly coming out of nowhere.
Slowly, I realized it was a pile of something smoldering.
I did not know anything about field fires then.
Wondering, tempted to imagine, I forced myself to attend to the task at hand.
I could not find the turn-in for the house. I must have passed it, so I backtracked, tried again, a little scared. A full moon rose over the bare tree limbs, soothing me with its steady presence. I followed a twisty road up a hill.

Far to the back of a farm, a trailer was parked. This was the place.
They sat, awaiting my knock.
They had no running water. The corpse had soiled himself,
maybe a good while before dying. They wanted him clean for the mortician.
They brought a bucket and I tried my best.
Fresh diaper, and shirt, buttoned to the neck. Hair brushed. Mouth closed.
Ready.
Now, the red glow in the dark field, the white moon above,
lighting the road up the hill are permanent reminders of potential surprises,
against the nights of dread.

(Excerpted and used with the permission of the author, published in The Country Doctor Revisited, KSU, 2010)

Nurse Lederer was called to help in a setting quite different from one familiar to her. She was called outside her comfort zone to care for a patient who was poor and dying. As she describes the setting, I felt her fear and discomfort. Sometimes medicine calls us outside of our selves, to walk in the shoes of another, to see what it feels like to live in a world different from the one we know. You don’t need to go to another country to experience a different culture. We have reflected on this in other blog entries [December 19, 2011 and January 9, 2012].  It may be the same culture, but it might be a different sense of personhood—what it feels like to be old or disabled or have a mental illness. So far in your career, have any patient encounters given you the chance to experience life from another perspective? If so, tell us about it, preserve privacy please, no identifying information. What did you learn? How did it alter your view of the world?

Read other work by Ann Neuser Lederer.

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