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Keith Colgan: Life lessons from the summer of 1965

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Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2013 12:00 am

A lifetime ago in the summer of 1965, I was looking for work to support my first year in college. After spending a week trying to sell Cutco knives door-to-door, I found a job as a Nurses Aid Trainee at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto. The fact that I was near the bottom of the employment food chain was reflected in both my government rank of GS-2 and the associated pay of $2.50 an hour.

But this story is not about low wages and government jobs. It’s about the experiences of a 17-year-old who was about to see, hear and smell things that would make him a better person. Some of my friends had already left for prestigious Universities in the East, while others were headed for jungles in a different “East.” All would see, hear and smell things they’d never forget. But for three months in the summer of ‘65 my experiences would be confined to a hospital.

I really liked the uniform — white-over-white with a pocket in the top for charting pens and mercury thermometers. I even had my own stethoscope which was placed either around my neck or stuffed into a rear pants pocket. The real nurses, all women, wore white dresses, nylons, shoes and caps in those days. I soon learned to avoid the ones with the black stripe on their cap because they had the most authority and didn’t mind using it.

One of our first lessons involved learning to give a bed bath. I was familiar with the concept because my mother had given me a few while growing up in the ‘50s during bouts of the measles and mumps. But to my teenage horror, the VA didn’t use plastic manikins to practice on. They used real people, and WE were the “people.” We were instructed to pair off and give each other a bath. Giving one was weird enough, but playing the naked patient was unthinkable. I looked desperately for a way out, but a very large woman with a black stripe on her cap wouldn’t hear of it. From then on I learned to bathe regularly, wear clean underwear, and to pose naked in front of health care professionals — a skill I use ever more frequently as a senior citizen.

We rotated assignments every few weeks, and I’ll never forget my first day on the geriatric ward. My buddy, also 17, and I arrived on scene about 8 a.m. (We had become close friends after giving each other a bath). We confidently entered the very large day room to find three long walls lined with every sort of wrinkled, chair-bound person sitting in every imaginable position, heads falling forward and to the side with saliva drooling from their mouths, waiting to be fed.

A month later we could be found every morning transferring generals, admirals and commanders from wheelchairs to commode chairs, inserting suppositories with gloved hands, and serving paper cups of prescribed whiskey while waiting for “bombs away.” To my surprise, I learned to enjoy it. It gave me pleasure to know I could help others who could not help themselves. Since then I’ve helped my wife “nurse” two children through childhood, offered free parenthood advice to the same as adults, and cared for both of my parents as their health failed — all using skills learned during the Summer of ‘65.

One day I was delivering meals and peeked through the windowed door of a man that was always asleep and never seemed to eat. This day his room was dark and he was making a strange rattling noise when he tried to breathe. I quickly found a nurse and asked her if we should do something. She said gently, “He doesn’t need anything — it’s called ‘conscientious neglect’ — do you understand?” I nodded yes, but not really. Someone else was in his room the next day.

One of my assignments was to change an external urinary catheter on a man in his 30s who had been a professional golfer. A car crash had left him unable to communicate (except for grunts and groans) and his body was in constant spasm. I tried to think of a way to draw him out by doing something that might interest him. The hospital had a small library, so we packed up and wheeled our way down there. I was excited. This was a chance to do something nice for a truly unfortunate person.

I found a copy of the S.F. Chronicle, opened it to the sports page and, while standing behind him, stretched my arms past his head and held the paper in front of his face. His body suddenly went still. I knew then I had done a good thing and he must be thrilled with the opportunity to read the paper and catch up on the sport he loved. Expecting nothing less than an appreciative grin, I peeked around from behind and saw, instead, a flood of tears.

“How could I have been so wrong?”, I thought. I folded up the paper, apologized for making him cry, and wheeled him quickly back to resume his “normal” life. Did he appreciate my efforts or consider it a cruel joke? He couldn’t tell me, and I was too embarrassed to ask.

Three months of training earned me a Nurses Aide diploma, a dent in my head where a psych patient hit me from behind with a heavy glass ashtray, a stained uniform from clearing an alcoholic’s anal impaction, and up-close knowledge of old style electroshock, lobotomies and experimental LSD drug therapies.

All in all, a great summer. I didn’t choose nursing as a career, but I learned a lot from the experience. May young ones who read this find a similar opportunity to serve others in need.

Keith Colgan is a local photographer and website designer who runs the website.

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