I was at breakfast recently with Big Sweetie who was going on about people at the soup kitchen whose behavior is utterly annoying, and one in particular whose tolerance level is somewhere in the negative digits. Sweetie was working himself up into a proper fit of indignation. I fixed him with a critical stare and said, "Sounds like somebody needs to learn when to say 'Thank you, Helen.'" Big Sweetie paused, then swiped half of my biscuit, lathered it with blackberry jam, and bit.
While his mouth was full, I launched into a story.
Several millennia ago I was in nursing school. We were the first graduating class in this particular school, and for our second year they added new instructors to the faculty, including Mrs. Willis who was to teach us psychiatric nursing. She was an odd duck from the start; everyone agreed to this. She was short and skinny with a pointy nose, cropped dark hair, and black-framed glasses that today would spell "geek". She genuinely liked psych nursing. She also had a way of evading questions that put the Gotta-Have-an-A students in a panic.
Our class was nothing if not diverse. There were among us women who were grandmothers, mothers, young marrieds, one just-out-of-high-school, and four men. Adult students take college more seriously than do young people; add to that faculty who were learning to work together and an untried curriculum and you have more variables than an established nursing school presents. It proved to be a learning experience for all.
In those pre-NCLEX days, my adult classmates developed the habit of arguing every ambiguous answer. One memorable test question involved a patient with hyponatremia, a term our instructors had not used, speaking instead of "low blood sodium." I read the question, thought Na = sodium, so natremia must mean sodium in the blood, and answered the question accordingly. (I think I answered wrong.) The more vocal students ate up a good deal of class time protesting the test question because it used a term we had not been taught. Ambiguous test questions like that one were thrown out with startling regularity.
By the second year the faculty were not so easily argued down.
We waded through OB, successfully as it turned out, but we still had to pass psych in order to graduate. Few of us looked forward to psych rotation, and the mental hospital where we were to be students looked like the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which put us all on edge.
In the classroom, Mrs Willis' lectures on psychiatric nursing further horrified us with talk of electroconvulsive therapy, masturbating patients, and four-point leather restraints. Her peculiar sense of humor and often cryptic answers should have warned us. I was not the only one counting the minutes until we could escape the whole psych nursing experience. Mrs Willis finally finished lecturing; she grinned fiendishly when the A's asked her what to study for the test. And then there was a memorable test.
38. "Helen, a patient on the psychiatric unit, approaches you and hands you a shoe; the shoe is filled with feces. Your response should be:
A. There is poop in this shoe, and it's unsanitary. Did you wash your hands?
B. Tell me what this means, Helen. Why are you giving this to me?
C. I am going to report you to the doctor. Maybe you need a change of medication.
D. Thank you, Helen.
Imagine the furor in class as we corrected those questions! Few of us answered correctly; I think I went for answer A. The correct answer, Mrs Willis insisted, was D. Thank you, Helen. Several A students gasped; the class all but collectively fainted. We were still talking about it at year's end. During the faculty roast we wished her a hearty handshake from a masturbating patient, and a shoe filled with shit. She seemed pleased by our tribute.
Big Sweetie put down a rasher of bacon. "You mean to tell me the correct answer really was supposed to be, Thank you, Helen?" I assured him it was so. He shook his head.
I continued, "You know, the more I work with people who are crazy or addicted or half-dead the more I learn about people who are not on the same leg of the journey as I am. It seems to me the only thing we can say to some people is a simple acknowledgement that we don't get each other, but we're still cool. Thanks, Mrs Willis, for the insight.
In memoriam Mrs. Willis, wherever you are. May your shoe be always full.