Bending the Rules
2020 Temple Health Essay Contest Winner
A shiver ran down my spine as I sat on my hands on the hard plastic chair in the testing facility. I wondered how many COVID-positive patients had been in this chair before me, how long I would have to launder my clothes before they were considered decontaminated. A nurse opened the curtain to the room wearing the body armor of medicine and greeted me before jamming the dreaded swab into what felt like my brain. I thought it was over until the nurse asked me what I’m sure she thought was a simple question.
“So, what happened?”
I opened my mouth to speak but my tear ducts beat me to it as I thought about the unlucky prolonged interaction I had with an unknowingly COVID-positive family member, the feelings of fear and guilt that were part of my new identity as a potential vector of disease for my recent contacts. An hour earlier, I had strategically planned out the least populated path to walk to the testing site. As I went, I mentally pleaded with anyone who got remotely close to me to “please, God, go another way.” I was wearing a huge fluorescent “danger” sign, but to those who didn’t know better, I was nothing but an invisible threat.
The nurse stooped down to my level and handed me a box of tissues. She looked at me with mascara-caked eyes from behind her face shield. “You need to go home and not think about this,” she said, “go sit in bed and read a book, knit, watch some Netflix...have you ever seen ‘PS I Love You’? I loved that movie; you should watch it when you get home.”
I knew exactly what she was practicing: the art of distraction. As a medical student and former EMT, I am a firm believer in it, myself. I also knew that I was being a difficult patient; this poor nurse happened to ask the wrong question at the wrong time to set off the powder keg that had become my life over the last 24 hours. She had other patients to see, and I was taking up her time; she probably just wanted to avoid sending a sobbing patient back out through the waiting room. I humored her and, between sniffles, told her I would put her favorite movie on my watch list.
She went on to offer a flurry of encouraging words in response to my litany of sorrows as I tried to compose myself. Then came the kairotic moment.
“I’d hug you but I have all this...stuff on…”
I laughed through my tears, thinking about how odd it was for a nurse to offer to hug a patient in a world now characterized by social distancing and avoiding people at all costs. As I continued to blot my face so the patients on the other side of the curtain wouldn’t think the test itself had traumatized me, she had a change of heart.
“You know what?” she said, terminating her thought before she wrapped her arms around me.
The blue paper gown she had on rubbed against my arms in a way that felt foreign, yet motherly. One of only a few people who could see my “danger” sign disregarded it, hugging a potentially COVID-positive stranger, a visible threat whom she had known for just five minutes. As my tears melted into her gown, I wondered how many times her superiors must have told her not to do exactly what she was doing at that very moment.
There were no witnesses. I never got her name.
As that nurse embraced me that morning, she clothed me with a new meaning of compassion. I will think about her when I am working the last hour of a long shift, and I am met with an anxious patient who wants to know if I could explain their test results one more time. I will think about her the next time a patient cries in front of me, and I can’t find the words to comfort them. I will think about her when I ask, “how are you feeling today,” and I will demand more than a one-word answer. Her job was to tickle my brain with a nasopharyngeal swab; instead, she awakened my empathetic ear.
Just before I left the testing facility, I crumpled up my damp tissue in my hand, gripping it like a security blanket. The nurse held up the tube containing my swab and looked at it in the light for a moment. I waited for her to use the magic in her eyes to transform it into something beautiful.
“It’s going to be negative, I feel it,” she said, “you’re going to be okay.”
She was right.
• • •
Emily Hancin, LKSOM '23, received second place in the 2020 Temple Health Essay contest for her work, Bending the Rules.