My Worst Day at Work … Ever
For my entire life, which at that point was 19 years, I had wanted to be a writer. But until then, I needed to make some money.
I had a short string of healthcare jobs, and with what I earned, I took a class to certify as a nurse’s aide. I thought maybe I’d get in to nursing school. I thought, if nothing else, being a nurse’s aide would be interesting to write about.
I have some notes for articles I wanted to write (about interactions with staff, mostly — I didn’t write anything specific about patients, due to HIPAA rules) — but for many years, I didn’t want to look at them.
It’s like thinking back to “the war.” You don’t go there.
My CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) classes were held in a closed nursing home. It was cool, but also a little creepy. Walk around a corner, and you’d see old beds stacked up in rooms.
I am a good student, but making beds with “mitered corners,” or giving bed baths, wasn’t exactly my forte. I was the youngest in my class, kind of lost in my own world, and slow. My teacher had trepidation about me, but a lot of patience.
But I learned. I learned that “QD” means “every day” and “PRN” means “as needed.” I learned how to mix thickener into liquids, so patients with swallowing trouble could drink without choking. I learned how to take a blood pressure.
When I passed the certifying exam, the examiner remarked at my high score. I demonstrated how I’d put a jacket on someone, and I passed.
Then I looked for a job. My instructor gave me a list of area nursing homes, but it quickly became apparent that no one wanted to hire someone without experience.
This was back in the so-long-ago when you would walk into a place, ask for an application, and fill it out. To save time, I started calling down the list. “Do you hire new CNA’s?” I asked the receptionist.
“No,” came the reply.
I got down to about five no’s when I reached one nursing home. “Yes, we hire new CNAs,” she replied. “Come in for an interview.”
The interview was quick. They had checked my references already, and asked me what shift I wanted to work. I said nights. (That may sound strange, but at the time it made perfect sense to me. I was taking care of my brothers, and it would allow me to watch them in the afternoons after school.)
I walked onto the unit fresh as a lamb, and was in for the shock of my life. You see, a daytime excursion through an abandoned nursing home is pleasantly spooky. A nursing home at night, complete with moans and people moving in the dark, is downright terrifying.
The units smelled like urine. It didn’t seem like anything was particularly dirty; the smell had just … embedded into the walls. After a few weeks, I couldn’t smell it anymore. This was equal parts reassuring, and alarming.
My coworkers showed me the ropes, but were snippy about my slowness. I wasn’t used to taking care of twelve residents. A nurse yelled at me until I cried.
I came home after three nights and said to a relative, “This job is terrible!”
“It can’t be that* bad,” she said. “Just keep going.”
I wondered if maybe something was wrong with me, but the fact is: my first full-time job was as an aide on a dementia unit. Most people would’ve run away in the first five minutes.
Most of the residents had been in four or five previous nursing homes that kicked them out for behavioral problems. They hit, screamed, and swore. But before their disease, they had been parents, pharmacists, teachers, lawyers. They were still people who needed care.
I’d long taken care of a sibling with special needs, and I immediately had sympathy and kindness for the residents. I later learned that many people get confused and angry when a loved one gets dementia. I never got angry at the residents, though I sometimes got angry at myself. For not being fast enough, for not being able to do enough.
Because as hard as I worked, there was always more to do. Even on nights. We usually had anywhere from five to ten residents awake, watching late night TV. We’d get them sandwiches and cookies and chat with them. Throughout the night, residents would wake up, and we’d have to go run and help them to the bathroom so they didn’t fall.
Many of the residents were very sick, and it was hard to watch them get sicker and die. Sometimes, doctors and hospitals couldn’t do anything for them anymore. Hospice would come in.
We had a policy that, if a family member couldn’t be with a dying patient, we would sit with them. Many times I sat next to someone, holding their hand. Each resident was in such an advanced state of dementia that they couldn’t talk or understand me. But it was important that I was there.
If someone died, we would open the nearest window. So their spirit could get out; that was the rule.
Many times an illness wasn’t so serious, but residents got sick. Everyone in close quarters … all it took was one person to come in from the hospital with an illness, and it would spread.
There was one night in February I will never forget. I went to check on one resident and saw that he’d had both explosive vomiting and diarrhea. I helped him to the bathroom, then I tiptoed back out of the room and called for another worker to come help me.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I gestured to the room, at a loss for words. I think my voice made some squeaking sounds.
She came, and she saw the mess. It was massive. Wall to wall bodily fluids.
We cleaned up the patient, then his room, and scrubbed our hands, but the norovirus was airborne. Pretty soon, everyone was sick.
I passed around a lot of buckets. We went through a lot of towels.
After two nights of this, despite meticulous hand-washing, I got sick, and had to call out.
When I came back the next day, the nurse on duty was furious. They’d had to work short-staffed. I tried to explain that I literally couldn’t come to work because I had vomited up all the fluids I had, but that was apparently no excuse. (That’s healthcare for you: if you’re not in a coffin, you had better be in for your shift.)
We got through it, and despite having everything thrown at me, I still wanted to be a nurse. I got into school.
“That’s good,” a nurse told me. “You don’t want to be wiping butts forever.”
I stammered some response, and went back to my work. That was the worst night, when I was passing washcloths and catching glimpses of late-night TV and realized I wasn’t going to be doing this anymore. Because it was hard, and not valued, and because I was only making $11 an hour.
A job like that should be worth so much more, because so much depends on it. It’s not a stepping stone to another job — it’s a career in and of itself, one I wasn’t cut out for. My spirit had tried to stay there, but fluttered away, looking for another place it might be better suited.
But in the end, I was right. It was something I’d write about.
*My relative eventually got a job there and said, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how you ever speak to me.” I told her it’s all good.