Home > Small Great Things (Ruth Jefferson #1)(3)

Small Great Things (Ruth Jefferson #1)(3)
Author: Jodi Picoult


It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.

RIGHT AFTER I gave birth to Edison, seventeen years ago at this very hospital, I wasn’t worried about the health of my baby, or how I was going to juggle being a single parent while my husband was overseas, or how my life was going to change now that I was a mother.

I was worried about my hair.

The last thing you’re thinking about when you’re in labor is what you look like, but if you’re like me, it’s the first thing that crosses your mind once that baby’s come. The sweat that mats the hair of all my white patients to their foreheads instead made my roots curl up and pull away from the scalp. Brushing my hair around my head in a swirl like an ice cream cone and wrapping it in a scarf each night was what kept it straight the next day when I took it down. But what white nurse knew that, or understood that the little complimentary bottle of shampoo provided by the hospital auxiliary league was only going to make my hair even frizzier? I was sure that when my well-meaning colleagues came in to meet Edison, they would be shocked into stupor at the sight of the mess going on atop my head.

In the end, I wound up wrapping it in a towel, and told visitors I’d just had a shower.

I know nurses who work on surgical floors who tell me about men wheeled out of surgery who insist on taping their toupees into place in the recovery room before their spouses join them. And I can’t tell you the number of times a patient who has spent the night grunting and screaming and pushing out a baby with her husband at her side will kick her spouse out of the room postdelivery so I can help her put on a pretty nightgown and robe.

I understand the need people have to put a certain face on for the rest of the world. Which is why—when I first arrive for my shift at 6:40 A.M.—I don’t even go into the staff room, where we will shortly receive the night’s update from the charge nurse. Instead I slip down the hall to the patient I’d been with yesterday, before my shift ended. Her name was Jessie; she was a tiny little thing who had come into the pavilion looking more like a campaigning First Lady than a woman in active labor: her hair was perfectly coiffed, her face airbrushed with makeup, even her maternity clothes were fitted and stylish. That’s a dead giveaway, since by forty weeks of pregnancy most mothers-to-be would be happy to wear a pup tent. I scanned her chart—G1, now P1—and grinned. The last thing I’d said to Jessie before I turned her care over to a colleague and went home for the night was that the next time I saw her, she’d have a baby, and sure enough, I have a new patient. While I’ve been sleeping, Jessie’s delivered a healthy seven-pound, six-ounce girl.

I open the door to find Jessie dozing. The baby lies swaddled in the bassinet beside the bed; Jessie’s husband is sprawled in a chair, snoring. Jessie stirs when I walk in, and I immediately put a finger to my lips. Quiet.

From my purse, I pull a compact mirror and a red lipstick.

Part of labor is conversation; it’s the distraction that makes the pain ebb and it’s the glue that bonds a nurse to her patient. What other situation can you think of where one medical professional spends up to twelve hours consulting with a single person? As a result, the connection we build with these women is fierce and fast. I know things about them, in a mere matter of hours, that their own closest friends don’t always know: how she met her partner at a bar when she’d had too much to drink; how her father didn’t live long enough to see this grandchild; how she worries about being a mom because she hated babysitting as a teenager. Last night, in the dragon hours of Jessie’s labor, when she was teary and exhausted and snapping at her husband, I’d suggested that he go to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. As soon as he left, the air in the room was easier to breathe, and she fell back against those awful plastic pillows we have in the birthing pavilion. “What if this baby changes everything?” she sobbed. She confessed that she never went anywhere without her “game face” on, that her husband had never even seen her without mascara; and now here he was watching her body contort itself inside out, and how would he ever look at her the same way again?

Listen, I had told her. You let me worry about that.

I’d like to think my taking that one straw off her back was what gave her the strength to make it to transition.

It’s funny. When I tell people I’ve been a labor and delivery nurse for more than twenty years, they’re impressed by the fact that I have assisted in cesareans, that I can start an IV in my sleep, that I can tell the difference between a decel in the fetal heart rate that is normal and one that requires intervention. But for me, being an L & D nurse is all about knowing your patient, and what she needs. A back rub. An epidural. A little Maybelline.

Jessie glances at her husband, still dead to the world. Then she takes the lipstick from my hand. “Thank you,” she whispers, and our eyes connect. I hold the mirror as she once again reinvents herself.

ON THURSDAYS, MY shift goes from 7:00 A.M. till 7:00 P.M. At Mercy–West Haven, during the day, we usually have two nurses on the birthing pavilion—three if we’re swimming in human resources that day. As I walk through the pavilion, I note idly how many of our delivery suites are occupied—it’s three, right now, a nice slow start to the day. Marie, the charge nurse, is already in the room where we have our morning meeting when I come inside, but Corinne—the second nurse on shift with me—is missing. “What’s it going to be today?” Marie asks, as she flips through the morning paper.

“Flat tire,” I reply. This guessing game is a routine: What excuse will Corinne use today for being late? It’s a beautiful fall day in October, so she can’t blame the weather.

“That was last week. I’m going with the flu.”

“Speaking of which,” I say. “How’s Ella?” Marie’s eight-year-old had caught the stomach bug that’s been going around.

“Back in school today, thank God,” Marie replies. “Now Dave’s got it. I figure I have twenty-four hours before I’m down for the count.” She looks up from the Regional section of the paper. “I saw Edison’s name in here again,” she says.

My son has made the Highest Honors list for every semester of his high school career. But just like I tell him, that’s no reason to boast. “There are a lot of bright kids in this town,” I demur.

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