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Why the First Bed Bath I Gave As a Student Nurse Stays With Me

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I looked at myself in the mirror of my room. It was 6 a.m. and my first time wearing navy blue scrubs. I was overly conscious of the way it felt on my body — from the “v” of my scrub top over my chest, to the tie of my scrub pants near my belly button, to the strange crispness of my entire outfit. My scrubs didn’t seem to fit me right. Was my top too big? Should I have gotten an XS? My pants were so stiff. Why was the waist so large and the tie so long? It felt uncomfortable. I looked awkward. It felt like a costume. It was a costume.

Sighing, I stepped away from the mirror and carefully placed my brand new stethoscope along with my pen light, a small notebook, a granola bar and a black pen into my tote bag and grabbed my keys from the dresser. I stood outside my room in disbelief that the first day of my med/surgery rotation had arrived; it took me about a minute before I finally locked the door and left for the hospital.

When I entered the hospital that morning, I was relieved to see a few of my classmates already gathered in the atrium.

All four of us were dressed in scrubs. All four of us had our name tags clipped onto our scrub top pockets. We smiled nervously at each other, silently empathizing with each other as we walked quietly to the elevator.

The second the elevator door closed and it was just us four. We exhaled confessions of fear and nervousness to each other, namely that we felt silly in our scrubs. We didn’t know anything. How did we get into nursing school in the first place? Why did we choose this path again? We had nothing to offer. We felt sorry for whoever our patient would be. We were already scared of our preceptor, though we had yet to meet her. Who were we kidding? We were terrified.

We met Rose that morning. Our preceptor had assigned us the task of giving Rose a bed bath. Now, over a decade later, I can no longer remember anything about her diagnoses or why Rose was admitted. But, I can still very clearly see that moment we walked into her room: she was laying in bed with her fifty-something year old eyes closed shut, slightly frowning. Hello, we are student nurses … is it okay if we give you a bath?

She didn’t open her eyes. What did that mean? Did that mean yes or no? Maybe we didn’t speak loudly enough? One of us repeated the question: Can we give you a bath?

Without opening her eyes or changing her expression, Rose answered … "Fine."

My classmates and I nervously looked at each other. Was she mad that we were bothering her? Was she annoyed that there were four of us? Was she irritated that we were students and not real nurses? We were convinced she didn’t like us already.

With our plastic basins filled with warm soapy water and a stack of clean towels, we each positioned ourselves near one of Rose’s extremities and began to hesitantly apply soapy warm towels to skin. I went up her left leg, and then down.

Up and down, up and down.

Beth washed Rose’s right leg. Up and down, up and down. Cassie, Rose’s right arm, and Lydia, Rose’s left arm. In the steadiness of our slow and deliberate strokes, our hesitance and insecurities slowly began to dissipate; and, as we relaxed, we soon felt Rose, too, relax.

After we toweled Rose dry, we began to apply lotion to her skin, methodically massaging her arms and legs as we did so. I lifted up her left leg again, lathering her calves, eventually making my way to her foot. There, I found dry crevices, like forgotten spiderwebs imprinted on the soles and sides of her feet. Her skin was tough and thick, like leather or jerky that had been sitting out in the sun for too long. It made me suddenly aware of the softness and youthfulness of my own two feet and I felt strangely guilty. Or ashamed. And privileged. I rubbed Rose’s toes with my gloved hands, massaging the lotion into her skin in hopes of erasing the dry lines. It was my first time holding another person's foot in my hands, my first time touching those tiny, special spaces between the toes. How ironic, I suddenly thought, that I was so close to my family yet had no idea what the skin between my sister’s toes felt like, how many creases my mother had on the bottom of her heel.

As we continued to rub lotion into Rose’s skin, Rose breathed contentedly and soon murmured her very first sentence to us that morning: "Mmm, best… bath… ever…thank you."

Her eyes remained closed still, but she had a smile on her face. My classmates and I looked at each and broke out in genuine and relaxed smiles.

I often think back to this memory, not only because it is a “first clinical day” vignette, but because my interaction with Rose and the change I saw in her after her bed bath has very much shaped my clinical style and practice. I still find meaning (and much joy) in these intangible, immeasurable, un-quantifiable, and interpersonal moments. In the shy smile of a kindergartener, in an encounter with an adolescent who comes into clinic “just to talk”, in a parent’s hug, a grandfather’s handshake. Such encounters take me back to that first clinical day, to that time when Rose allowed four scared student nurses to give her a bed bath, to that moment when I realized what being a nurse meant for me.

I remember Rose thanking us, and I remember us smiling at her words. But I can’t remember if we ever thanked her. So, Rose, wherever you are, thank you.

Evelyn Lai is a pediatric nurse practitioner as well as a 2018–2019 Doximity Author.

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