The Miracle of Amber
Published March 2008, St Anthony Messenger Magazine,
2009 Catholic Press Association Award, 1st Place, Best Essay for Magazine (North America)
Our parish priest announces, one day before I go under the knife, that The Age of Miracles is in fact not over. It just appears differently. He maintains that God continues to work miracles today, albeit not in the fashion of miracle working that his son brandished. Miracles in 2006, according to Father Bill, often take the form of medical advances, surgery, drugs, etcetera. Glory be.
Over the years, my tummy has been sliced every which way leaving a map of scars inside and out. I am always nervous and apprehensive as I lie in the pre-op waiting bed. And I always pray. My prayer is specific. I want to see God, in this world, in this hospital, among these medically trained staff. I deliberately ask God to show himself in the humans around me. Some see God in nature, beauty, music. But I must see God in another human and when I do (and I always do), my apprehension evaporates and is replaced by peacefulness. In past surgeries, God has inevitably revealed himself in the anesthesiologist. I can see him in their eyes. I fall asleep looking into those eyes and imagine being held in the arms of God.
During this surgery however, I do not see God so quickly or easily. With the gas mask in place, instead of searching for the Holy of Holies, my mind returns to my own fears. This will be the most serious surgery I’ve ever had.
I awake after having a goodly chunk of my colon removed. My hands move immediately to my hips and I feel no hanging plastic bags or tubes. I know now that a colostomy was not deemed necessary and I fall back into oblivion and thankfulness.
During the next several days complications present themselves and result in my having a tube inserted into one nostril, which I must swallow via gags until it reaches my stomach. The tube vacuums my stomach for four days in order to prevent further vomiting and retching. Doctors and nurses pass in and out of my consciousness taking vitals, shooting more drugs into IV’s. Each leg is encased in tight stockings from tiptoe to groin, each limb wrapped with pneumatically pumping bandages that massage my legs to prevent blood clots. Another tube is inserted into my last free nostril to deliver oxygen; while another is inserted into my spine through which painkiller is delivered and still another is buried under the skin of my abdomen and pumps novocaine throughout my incision, which runs about eighteen inches, north and south, and pulls flaps of abdominal flesh together with dozens of shiny metal staples. A morphine pump is clipped to my pillowcase from which I can trigger extra drugs if needed.
The medical staff are technical wizards with their tubes and machines. Pain is kept at bay as they tend to my every conceivable discomfort. Nevertheless, I feel like the sum of many body parts rather than as an individual person. One checks my legs for clots while another takes my temp and pressure while still another dresses my open wound. Each intently works on one or another area of my helpless body. Though I have had nothing to eat or drink, other than occasional ice chips, for five days now, I am no longer hungry. I am beyond physical hunger except for one thing. I desperately want to bathe.
To lie in a bed unbathed for five days is a kind of suffering I hadn’t anticipated, a sort of miracle I hadn’t sought. There are far worse things in this world I scold myself. There are folks in this hospital that will never go home. A hot shower is the least of their problems. And yet my skin begins to crawl, to itch, to die, to shed. My hair, spoiled and accustomed to wonderful aromatic shampoos and rinses cries neglect. It is oily, sticking to my head and bending in foreign directions and actually hurts, but I don’t dare complain lest everyone think I am vain or ungrateful. It isn’t appearance I am concerned about; it is something else I need that I cannot quite name.
Hidden in the throng of specialists and registered nurses, stands a pretty little student nurse named Amber. I spy her in the corner of my room while I am poked and prodded as she waits her turn to minister. She is well worth the wait—my personal guardian angel for the day. She has no other patient in the world other than me. Her first task is to get me standing erect. I lean on her little frame as she jostles tubes and pumps and catheters, hanging the evidence of my bodily secretions and consumptions on poles with wheels. We take a slow stroll to the door of my room, which is unbelievably exhausting.
She asks if there is anything I want. Anything at all. Other than a chocolate milkshake I tell her, I desperately want a hot shower. She disappears to obtain permission and returns smiling. I can shower she says but she’ll have to go in with me. There is a shower designed (down the hallway) in which I can sit and she can assist. I am so thrilled that I am determined to walk as far as the shower without passing out. Anything for a good hot shampoo and scrubbing.
Arriving at the shower, a total wimp unbelievably weakened by a walk of fifty lousy feet, Amber and I dodge the poles and tubes and catheters hanging here and there as she removes my old gown and carefully lowers me onto the shower chair.
Odd to be stark naked in front of strangers isn’t it? Mind you, mine is no longer a beautiful body. It is a body that has birthed five sons. Arms and hips that creak with arthritis, breasts that droop from feeding babies. It is an old body, well-used with plenty of fat folds and scars drooping here and there, a body etched with stretch marks. And yet the little nurse is so respectful, so immensely gentle and kind—and I so desperate to feel hot water spray over my skin—that nakedness is forgotten.
Amber is a student. Green. Still learning. I’m not sure if she’s ever yet done an assisted shower. But she proceeds seemingly with no thoughts for herself. She seems to get inside my skin and know exactly what is needed as though she is me. Her empathy takes on a spirituality I hadn’t expected. As she begins gently spraying me with a hand held nozzle, wonderful steamy water showers down my back and over my head. She lathers a fluffy wash cloth and strokes my back.
I feel reborn. Tears surprise me and begin flowing down my cheeks and I hope she doesn’t see them as they mix with the shower spray. She soaks my hair and sudses it up, massaging my scalp, pulling her little fingers from my scalp to the end of each strand. She hands me another soft cloth to wash my face and chest. She washes my arms slowly, carefully moving around needles and tubes, thoroughly rinsing each carefully, telling me we don’t want soap film or my skin will itch.
I finally look askew at her and see that her white uniform is absolutely soaking wet. You’re drenched I say. I’m so sorry I say. She smiles, says don’t worry about it, that she doesn’t care. I stare at the floor of the shower and see that her tennis shoes are also squishy wet. I worry about how she’ll get home. It’s the middle of February in Minnesota and well below freezing outdoors. She just whispers shush and keeps washing and rinsing. It is a delicious warm blessing I never want to end.
That’s when I see God.
In the faith tradition from which I come, we celebrate a story of Passover where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. In this sacred moment, Amber kneels down at my feet, a picture of Jesus flashes before my eyes and I choke back a sob. Her knees on the hardened wet tile floor of the open shower, she begins to wash my feet. Not a quick cursory wash like I myself would do, but slowly and lovingly. She takes each toe, sudsing each with her bare little hand, washing the soles, the corns and calluses, my ankles, my legs. My heart is bursting with gratitude for her sacrifice, for her service. She gives of herself with dignity, both for herself and for me. My tears run freely now, but she acts like she doesn’t see them. She just smiles softly as she rinses and pats my skin dry with a soft towel.
We move aside to a dry area of the room as she lotions by back and robes me with wonderful clean pajamas. I sit on a dry chair and she lotions my feet and legs and places clean socks and slippers on them. She tilts my head back into her tiny hands and gently combs the snarls of my hair and says I look lovely. Lovely! I can’t stop the tears as I laugh and accuse her of lying. A lame ‘Thank you’ is all I can get out of my mouth, so afraid of openly sobbing at this point.
We hobble back to my room and she places me in the recliner. Oh, the heavenly position of sitting upright again. She scurries about my room, squishing around in her wet clothes and shoes, and changes all my bedding.
She gently lays me down back in the bed and covers me with heated blankets. I am exhilarated and yet fully exhausted from the workout of cleansing and walking. I try to stay awake, but rudely zonk out before I see her again. I sleep through the end of her shift and never say good-bye. Then I see she has left a hand-written note on my nightstand that simply reads, “God Bless. Amber.”
God blessed indeed. Right here. In Saint Paul, Minnesota.
My experience with Amber was so vivid and moving, I wrote the story my first day home from the hospital because I never wanted to forget it. And, I was determined to find the young woman. I wanted to send her the story in a thank you card. All I knew was that she was a student nurse.
After calling the hospital and giving the exact date of Amber’s visit, I learned she was a student of The University of St. Catherine (or, as the locals say, St. Kate’s) and that the college was not allowed to release students’ full names. Saddened that I could not reach her personally, I sent the story to the college’s news staff and asked that they pass it on to Amber.
A week later I received a phone call from St. Kate’s. They wanted permission to use the story as a teaching tool in their nursing program. Then, they told me something that I found even more moving than my experience with Amber.
Apparently students evaluate themselves after doing stints at local hospitals. Amber had graded herself poorly after ministering to me. She had felt inept, had thoroughly doused herself, accidentally loosened an IV in my arm and caused bleeding and ultimately considered the experience a failure on her part.
For Amber, and other student nurses, to study such “failed” experiences from the patient’s point of view was a gift. I was thrilled to have been able to offer such a gift and to receive yet another gift from Amber. The reminder that when we minister to others, it is the heart that matters. That God sees the heart and the intent of our actions. That God uses us to touch the lives of others, even when we have not yet perfected our abilities, even in our flawed and still-forming human states.
2009 Catholic Press Association Award, 1st Place, Best North American Essay, Magazine