Arriving back on Vancouver Island, I was delighted when my younger brother offered me free accommodation in an unoccupied townhouse they owned. This was to be my home for quite some time while I completed my Nurse Refresher. Since my savings from the motel sale were becoming thinner all the time, I was grateful for this unexpected kindness.
Thus began months of grinding hard work as I buckled down to complete the twenty-two exams required to get my R.N. license once more.
In addition, my poor body, stiffened and insulted by what I had put it through up north, punished me with arthritis-like stiffness daily. It was to be some time before I learned that a regular swimming regimen would set me free.
In the meantime, I sought help from various alternative healers. My chiropractor bills by the time I finished my last exam totaled somewhere around two thousand dollars, but I was able to move around and ride my bike. It certainly seemed worth every dollar.
When the time came for me to go to Yellowknife to sit my preceptorship under a kind and supportive, experienced nurse, I had little money left, however. And the air fare up there and back, along with accommodation costs, appeared prohibitive to me. But I was so close to the end. I had to get there somehow.
I had met a man…of course. Through the personals, of course. How else could I meet anyone, flitting madly around the continent as I had been doing?
Wallace was very well off, but looking for something a bit younger and prettier, no doubt about it. By this time, with all I had been through, I felt as though a truck had driven through my physical health. My weight had continued to rise little by little.
But I “knew” I was within sight of the end, the light at the end of the tunnel was right there!! I just had to keep going a bit longer.
Wallace offered to pay my airfare and living costs to see me through my preceptorship. I had no idea how well off he really was at that point; in fact, he turned out to be quite wealthy, unknown to me. But he wanted to help me complete this challenging course I had set out upon. And of course, any man of later years loves a nurse!
I arrived in Yellowknife and went straight to the home of the family mentioned earlier. They had set aside a bedroom for me, accommodation up there being almost non-existent.
Many workers and students, in fact, were living in tents, unable to find anything more secure.
I was apparently lucky to get a room at all.
I loved the geography of the North West Territories. In summer heat, I walked barefoot across the smooth, hot rock of the Canadian Shield, dotted with small patches of trees and wildflowers. The resources of the area amazed me. Diamonds! Gold! Oil! It had everything. In such a land of plenty, I wondered at the lack of accommodation.
Great Slave Lake, where people lived winter and summer, even on the thick ice, was fascinating. The proximity of an old-English style tea house close to its shores charmed the daylights out of me.
I just loved the whole area. Some places grab you that way.
But the hospital was in difficulties, closing whole departments as it struggled with the healthcare system’s ongoing financial battles.
I loved the nurses I met up there. What wholesome, genuine people. No pretensions. No overweening ambitions, but a real appreciation for the important things of life. I could have happily lived there, but jobs were scarce, with the hospital trying to keep only the most vital departments open.
The extreme summer heat was a big surprise…I had always pictured life up there to be…cold. Pretty much all the time. But if they don’t get a good tan and enjoy forty degree summers, they feel cheated.
Any kind of travel is always eye-opening.
And so ended my preparation to return to nursing. And a new beginning dawned for me as I pondered the next step…find work!
I flew back to Vancouver Island and stayed with Wallace while I searched for that elusive first job.
What I did not know for a long, long time was that the person in charge of my coursework at the college had made a mistake. She thought I had opted for an easier, gentler course of action and did not realize I had in fact, taken the heavy, demanding Trauma Nursing coursework instead.
Somehow, she had gotten my files mixed up. So each time I gave her as a reference for employment, her assessment of my interests and abilities reflected this mistake. My hard-won achievement in Trauma Nurse preparation went unrecognized and was not passed on to potential employers.
What a crazy world. Without faith in a loving, supportive God and universe, I really would have given up!
Wallace was indignant when interview after interview passed and I still had no job offer. I could not understand it. His supportiveness made a big difference for me. What he didn’t know, and what I was too stupid to realize, was that I should not have put my psychic practice experience on my resume. It was an important part of who I was, so I had included it. Obviously, though I am a fairly bright woman, there is some strange block in my mental processes. No nurse should mention that she has practiced as a psychic! It gives the wrong impression entirely.
When I look back on that time, I also recall how, in the Scottish highlands, I had worn my fabulous gown and long blonde wig to a major dinner/dance event, completely out of tune with my environment. It seems I am often out of tune with the world I live in, perhaps even in a world of my own, some might say.
Wallace suggested I look at Care Homes in some of the larger cities, and I thought that was a great idea. I enjoyed his company and his pleasant home, but, as usual, there was the ever-present problem of alcohol.
Indeed, it seemed impossible to meet a man who did not have a drink habit. Hunter or not!
But his personal choices were none of my business; his friendship mattered a great deal to me.
One day, taking his excellent advice, I faxed off a resume to a little nursing home. I had found it under “Nursing Home” listings in the Yellow Pages.
To my surprise, the director phoned me with an invitation for a phone interview. We talked for some time, then she asked me to come and meet her.
I was more than willing to travel that distance to meet her. I was so eager to get my career started.
When I met Julie, we hit it off immediately. It was just one of those things. I was hired and started work within a week or two.
A Nursing Home was exactly what I had actually been hoping for. More low-key than a busy hospital floor, where my lack of recent experience would show like a sore thumb, this involved a single floor and about two dozen clients.
I had been offered night shift, which was also perfect. A slower start back into my profession. I knew my confidence would grow with time.
I moved into the large top floor of an old, rambling house and made friends with my neighbours downstairs. Funny how things work. It turned out that before the year was out, I was to be very glad for that particular house and those particular neighbours.
Sometimes I would pause in my hectic life and remember the astrologer at that Psychic Fair, only a couple of years back, though it seemed aeons ago. The one who refused to complete my reading, saying there was so much difficulty ahead on my path, he did not want to do my chart.
And I would recall also the palm reader I then turned to in the same Psychic Fair, who assured me happily that everything was going to be wonderful.
I felt respect for the astrologer, who had told me the hard truth. Always so much to be preferred!
As the months went by, I settled happily into a new life working night shift at the Home, enjoying my elderly patients and learning from experience what can never be taught from books or lectures.
One day, the Director told me that another R.N., one with much more seniority than I had, was going to compete for a position involving about half my hours. She felt I should be aware of this impending possibility.
This nurse could easily ”bump” me, according to Union rules, and I would be bereft of half my paycheck! Just like that!
And that is what happened. My head swam with the enormity of this event. I could not drive, and my interviews at other hospitals ended quickly when they discovered that fact. I could not live outside of town and work in those places, because I could not get to work quickly enough if I was called in. I could have moved closer to the big towns, but I had not been able to save enough money to pay for a move.
And that brings me to the really big problem in nursing in Canada.
Seventy percent of nursing jobs in Canada are part time. When a Royal Commission in past years discovered this, they suggested that steps be taken to reverse this. They felt that thirty percent of nursing jobs should be part time, and seventy percent should be full time.
However, that was never implemented.
There are many advantages to having nurses work part time, obviously. There are ramifications in job perquisites, for example, which save cash-starved hospitals a lot of money.
For a nurse who is married, it works all right. Most nurses in Canada work “on call”. They leave their phones turned on day and night, never knowing when they will be needed. Nurses generally get enough work under this system to make their lives flow.
But for single women, this is hard going. Their wage is all there is to pay that mortgage, that car loan. They cannot tell the bank they have full time work, because they do not. What they do have is two on-call jobs, and no one pays for wear and tear or gas bills for their vehicles as they dash from location to location to earn enough to keep things moving along from month to month.
This would be acceptable…to me, anyway…if nurses had little training and were trained as they used to be in Scotland…on the job. No degrees, no higher education involved.
But for anyone to go the incredible expense of getting a Degree, or complete College courses to the R.N. level, only to have to keep two on-call jobs, never being able to turn their phone off, never enjoying the career conditions that most…sorry, here goes my hobby horse…that most men take for granted in their professions, it seems a poor career choice.
By profession, I mean a job of work which involves expensive, extended years of training and membership in a controlling Body which has the power to assess performance and take away one’s license to practice.
That’s what a profession is. Most professions do not involve seventy percent on-call work, for a start.
It is not all about wages. A lot of work satisfaction is found in recognition, praise, and effectiveness. It’s not all about money.
But to put out that much money on training for something where you will probably never get a full time job, seems like a poor choice.
I know Registered Nurses who work two part time, on-call jobs, are in middle years, getting old, and can hardly pay their mortgages. They are divorced, one-income households.
This is how I feel about it. Not all nurses feel this way. Many married women love the arrangement, finding it gives them more flexibility in work hours and so on, which suits their families.
The long and the short of it is…I could not get work in the city nearby as a Registered Nurse without a driver’s license, because of the system involving on-call work. I began to try to get by on half my former wages. And my good neighbours downstairs became quite an advantage.
Bruce and Gina were used to getting by on very little, having disabilities. Across the road from our big old house stood a tidy little building, the local Food Bank. They had learned all the tricks imaginable. They knew how to get by using the Food Bank system.
They knew the best times to go, the best days, and everything else.
The day came when I, a practising R. N., knew I had to accept charity to feed myself. Hardly able to believe the depths I had fallen to, I walked across the road to join the line-up one morning, accompanied by my reassuring, helpful neighbours.
Still, I welcomed every experience life offered. I knew there must be a reason for all this, and I knew I would eventually find an answer.
For two months, I worked my new, limited number of hours on night shift at the Nursing Home, and got my food supplies at the little building across the road, along with a lot of other people.
The first day I went in to register, I was mortally embarrassed. I had to tell them my income and where I worked. I thought they would be shocked and turn me away when they discovered I worked as an R.N.
They gently reassured me. “Don’t worry about that, hon,” the lady at the front desk told me, shaking her white hair so her little curls bobbed around. “We have lawyers, nurses, sometimes even young doctors in here looking for help. Things happen to people. Sometimes it takes time for a professional person to get a practice built up too, and they have families. It’s just reality. So don’t feel like that. Everyone has to eat.”
After two months like this, I decided to go where a nurse could get FULL TIME work…the United States.
Knowing this step would be disapproved of by my peers, I tried to keep things quiet as I started the paperwork trail. An amazing number of things had to be done before I could be placed in a hospital somewhere south of the border.
And of course, my lack of a driver’s license would be a problem there too. I had to get work in the right locale, there had to be a bus service, and so on.
After some time, an agency found a job for me in a New Mexico health care facility. A small town, it sounded neighborly and friendly. Five days a week, a full time job. At last! I was overjoyed. Nervous, but happy.
I had just turned 59. In three short years, I had sold my motel, experienced a rose-strewn romantic passion to rival anyone’s, been dramatically and unceremoniously dumped, gotten a Medical Transcription Certificate at university, completed a Nurse Refresher Course of two years, worked at a medical spa in the far north, set up a successful psychic practice, returned to B.C., travelled to Yellowknife to do my Preceptorship, gotten some good Care Home experience under my belt, learned about the power of Unions first hand, become familiar with the Food Bank system, and had successfully gotten all paperwork completed to work in the U.S. as a Registered Nurse.
My brain was whirling, my cells were exhausted, my nervous system was stuttering and talking to itself. Yes, for sure. But I felt I was almost there…I had almost achieved a secure job with a good wage.
I only needed to work for six years to retire now, and I wanted to do well, put more money aside for some future travel, a decent home, some independence at the end of my life, and a comfortable addition to my pensions.
Were my spiritual Guides looking after me? Well, they were trying to. As the day of my flight to New Mexico approached, many obstacles rose in my path. I could not believe the small, irritating things that seemed to be in my way!
Louise did not have her right shots. I managed to find the money for that, then I re-read the instructions from the travel agency and understood that the carrier I had for her was not the right size.
Again, I pushed my burdened credit card to the limit, and bought what I thought was the right one. I didn’t want any last minute problems!
On the day of our flight, Louise and I trundled down to the airport in a cab. A number of things were about to happen as my loving Guides made a last-ditch attempt to get my full attention and inspire me to cancel my flight and stay in Canada.
I took my ticket up to the airline desk and the first problem struck. Despite my attention to the cat carrier instructions, I still had the wrong kind.
They could not allow my cat on the plane without the right carrier. I was frantic. The plane was about to leave!
She said, “I’ll get you on the next flight. Don’t worry. Your connections will still work fine. Hurry and go to the Vet’s. They are the only place to get these carriers.”
So l left my poor cat locked up in her carrier, howling at the swirling airport world around her, all alone while I grabbed a cab and shot off to the Vet.
I asked the cab to wait while I went in to purchase the carrier. The taxi was one of those big old spacious cars with huge doors. The doors have a sharp corner up at the top right hand corner, the outside corner.
I came flying out of the Vet’s office with the carrier and opened the taxi door to climb back in. As I ducked to slide down into the seat, the door swung back so fast I had no chance to even think what was happening. The sharp upper corner swung into my face, miraculously pushing my glasses up from the bridge of my nose and bashing my face just at the inner corner of the eye.
It struck me with such force that I fell to the ground unconscious for a moment or two. The driver, unaware of how much the door had damaged his fare, remained seated calmly and asked me if I was all right?
I got slowly to my feet, shaking my head. I seemed to be under assault. Life was too much. At that moment, I wanted more than anything to get my luggage and let the driver take me back to my home in the big old rambling house.
But there was no living income to be had staying where I was. I had to move forward. All this shot through my over-pressured brain as I climbed to my feet.
I thought the injury was slight. But events further down the road made me wonder, later, if the damage had been limited to my face. In fact, looking back, I realized that I must have suffered a concussion when the taxi door struck my face. Far from caring for the concussion, I boarded the plane anyway and carried on as though nothing had happened.
I was to pay for this “carry-on-no-matter-what” attitude for a long time – years, in fact.
In addition, I could so easily have lost my eye! As it was, I had a massive swelling bruise around my eye. Great. Just what I wanted again. To start a new job with a black bruise on my face. What was it with new jobs and bruises??
After all that, Louise and I landed relatively safe and sound in El Paso where we had to spend the night, in a cockroach-infested motel near the railroad tracks. We got through the night and, in the morning, waited for our pre-arranged ride to come and take us to our new location on planet Earth.
We seemed to have lived, albeit briefly, almost everywhere in the western hemisphere by now.
We had accommodation set up ahead of time in a nice little motel/restaurant some distance out of town. This was another situation where you really should have a driver’s license. But my agency had thought this would work for me, so I went ahead trustingly. It turned out that friendly staff at the motel were happy to drive me wherever I needed to go.
I’ll call the town Smithtown, which is not the name of course.
The first thing was to meet the Hospital administrator who had so kindly hired me. After going to see him and filling out a mountain of paperwork, I was to meet him out in the parking lot to begin an accommodation search.
I was glad to have help with this difficult problem, for there were not many places to stay in town, just like Yellowknife…but the climate was a bit different down here!
We drove around, picking up tips from locals as we went, and before evening fell, we had found a sweet little cottage with its own yard, very protected with a high wrought iron fence all around it. It was attached to the owner’s adjoining property and felt very safe.
It was so exciting to start at the hospital. The first few days were taken up with watching videos concerning different aspects of law in the United States. For example, if a nurse were to inadvertently give away even the information that a patient was in the hospital, never mind any other information, she could be sued for a staggering amount of money and face a lengthy period in prison.
As I sat watching that particular video, it reminded of something else I had discovered before leaving B.C. A television documentary on women in U.S. prisons had said something about half the female prison population being there due to bouncing checks. I had vowed to be very, very careful with my checking account Indeed while working there.
I was nervous of the many differences between Canadian and U.S. life. It felt much more threatening, more wild, less protected. Being born in Canada and being part of the British Commonwealth, where a kind of socialism mixes well with free enterprise, I had always felt very protected by a vast, invisible safety net. This, of course, is something a lot of Americans don’t like and don’t approve of. So I was really in a different kind of culture.
The Hospital Administrator took pains to say to me while we were house-hunting, “Please don’t base your impression of the United States on this little area. It is mostly quite different from this.”
Smithtown was very different in many ways. It was close to the Mexican border, and bylaws were much looser than anything I was used to. Dogs ran in wild packs, unafraid and quite ready to attack anyone on foot. Anyone, for example, like a nurse walking home from work late in the evening, with no means to defend herself.
I had to call the ward one evening on my cell phone to get help, as a pack of aggressive dogs meaning business had surrounded me and would not let me move forward down the street. There was no one around. Thank Goodness I had taken the trouble to buy the right kind of cell phone before I left home.
One of the staff dropped her work and jumped in her car to come rescue me. As she pulled up, the dogs took off.
How did people live in this place, I wondered? No bus service. One taxi, and that only if the driver felt like being a taxi that day.
Everyone had vehicles, no one walked in Smithtown. All the cars had air conditioning. The temperature while I was there regularly hit 105 degrees. To say you could fry an egg on the sidewalk was an understatement. You could fry sandals on the sidewalk.
I walked everywhere, shopping and doing errands. It was wonderful to be able to just throw on a loose dress and a pair of sandals and off I would go, my sunhat and sunglasses in place, slathered with sun block.
But it took its toll. Locals know better than to walk anywhere, and I began to suffer strange symptoms. I put it down to the heat.
I thought I would acclimatize, however.
But as the weeks passed, something strange was going on inside my skull. It felt like my brain was under some kind of assault. I couldn’t put words to it but over time, real alarm bells began to sound.
At work, the nurses wondered what was wrong with me…I could not remember things.
Nurses in the U.S. are trained to insert the spike for an I.V. line into a patient for a “drip” or intravenous.
They taught me how to do it and put me on the list to attend a formal course so I would be certified in this skill.
But every night I had no memory of being taught how to do this. I could set up the intravenous drip itself, of course, but when it came to the unfamiliar task of inserting the spike itself, I could not remember anything about it. It was as though no one had ever showed me.
Every night the nurse in charge of my orientation took me through the procedure again and again. She was very concerned about my lack of memory, but I myself didn’t feel any concern…that was the other strange thing, now that I look back on it.
I loved the work. It was an amazing privilege, with my limited hospital experience, to be put in charge of a busy acute care ward, housing so many kinds of desperately ill patients. Night shift was of course quieter, but things always happened.
It was wonderful, really, to work in that place. I felt uplifted, honoured and happy in my work. There was a chronic staff shortage with people always leaving. The lack of support staff and the pressure of work were enormous problems. As the weeks went by, I heard several of the Registered Nurses talking about giving notice. I felt sorry for the hospital and for the patients.
But the pressure was, really, huge. There were several Canadian nurses there who felt the same compassion and would stay on when others left. There was something terrific about being so needed, and about having the skills to actually make a difference!
I had one Aide on staff to help me at night, on a part time basis. He was also support staff on the ward next door, so we had to share him.
Who suffers? The patients, of course, though they often don’t realize it.
As morning came, there would be a mass of paperwork to be completed before going home. Nurses normally stayed for as much as two hours, without extra pay, after quitting time to complete the paperwork. It was important, because that was where the hospital made its money. Without that, there would be no hospital at all.
I had, of course, a skewed view of women in nursing. So much of this kind of discipline relies on the giving, nurturing nature of….good ol’ estrogen at work!! Yup, here we were again.
Sometimes I wished my parents had not raised me to observe and notice all these things.
However, despite my love of the hospital and the work, I knew something was giving way in my brain. One day I went to Emergency and asked if they could take a look at me, as I felt something was wrong with my head. Then as we talked, I realized I had to pay money…a lot of money…to just be looked at by a doctor here!! Yikes!! I could not afford this!
The nurse assured me I could pay over a series of payments, but I fled. I was too used to our safety net, our healthcare system. Pay money?? At the hospital?? WHAT?? In fact, I had travel insurance and realized later that I could have had the scan and it would have been covered. But I had no memory of the travel insurance and I did not know, anymore, what travel insurance was or how it worked. I needed care, and there was none. I needed someone who knew me to be around the step in to the situation. But there was no one.
I went home that day and thought about what to do. There was something seriously wrong with my brain, I could see that. The nurse who had been showing me, once again, how to insert the spike on an intravenous patient, had said, “Look, this is the fifth time or something…why can’t you remember this stuff?”
I replied that something seemed to be going wrong with my head, but I didn’t know what. I thought it was the heat.
I knew this could not go on. Whatever was wrong, it wasn’t going to get better. I had to bite the bullet and move on. Good Grief, what next??
That night shift, I went to the nurse in charge of Staff and left a note saying I was giving twenty-four hours notice. I was not well, and had to get out of there before the heat entirely destroyed my ability to function. I apologized profusely and said I appeared to have no choice. Which I did not.
I knew I would have to pay back the hiring bonus they had generously given me, and over time, I did that. However, ultimately, hearing of my sickness, further down the line, they kindly cancelled one thousand dollars of the debt. I had not expected such kindness.
I should not have been living in a place where a driver’s license was not a choice, but was mandatory for survival. But, I still thought it was the heat.
I phoned the single taxi in the area and asked if he would drive me and my cat to El Paso next day. I had booked a flight out. He said he thought he could, wasn’t sure. I explained my situation and thought he had taken me seriously when I hung up.
This taxi driver was a rare, unique find in anyone’s travels. A real individual. He wore a beard and a baseball cap, but below the waist he wore short shorts and wedge high heels. He had the most fabulous, movie-star legs on the planet. He shaved his legs. He had a wife, however.
I never did figure any of it out. It was just a different world. And the taxi never came. He wasn’t in the mood that day. I frantically phoned round the few people I knew and paid a woman one hundred dollars to take me to El Paso NOOOOWWW please.
She drove over as I was packaging up my garbage to take it across the road to the dumpster.
“Leave that,” she shouted. “We don’t have time for that. You will miss your plane!!”
As we drove frantically, traveling East, the sun was rising. It was a huge, massive sun, the biggest I had ever seen. Brilliant yellow and HOT. I felt real terror of the sun, for the first time in my life. I could not wait to get out of New Mexico and back to the shady forests of B.C.
So Louise and I found ourselves back on a SouthWest Airlines flight sooner than I had anticipated. We sat in the sun in Phoenix airport at one point, caught in a mechanical problem, for some time. The heat in the shade that day was 120 degrees.
Louise was made to crouch inside a tiny box, just big enough for her to stand up in. She was placed under my seat for the flight, meowing continually. Animals who had been boarded in the usual way, in the supposedly cool luggage areas, had been dying of the heat. So no pets could travel freight, they had to be in the cabin.
And where were we heading to, you ask? Well, before leaving Smithtown, I had gone on the internet down at the local library and found a nursing position in the B.C. north. Thrilled to find a position back in B.C.’s normal cool, damp climate, I figured this would solve my problem. Just get out of that sun!! The hospital had hired me sight unseen.
But before I arrived in my new post, I had a problem: my credit cards were pressured almost to the max. And, given that, naturally the trip home could not be straightforward!
The first thing that happened was that, since I had booked my flight at the last minute, the airlines computer had flagged me as a possible terrorist. This led to repeated intense searches of all my luggage all along the way. Since that ate up a lot of time, I missed my connecting flight and had to re-book.
“I’m sorry, madam,” the attendant said, gazing down at her computer screen, “but you will have to pay for your new flight booking.”
I was aghast. I can’t recall now what reasons she gave me, but I had no choice, so out came good ol’ Mastercard for one last hurrah.
This left a small amount available on my Visa and after that…by the time I arrived at my destination, I would have about one hundred dollars and some pocket change left.
My heart sank. What was I going to do? I would not get a paycheck soon enough to save the day. By now, I could hardly think. Someone seemed to have poured thick molasses over all my brain endings. I looked normal on the surface but inside, little was functioning.
Strange thing was, the state of my brain did not worry me as it should have had. And that in itself was an important clue. But I couldn’t think well enough to know even that!
As night fell, I found myself standing in front of a hotel desk, my cat in her carrier on the floor beside me. We still had a little distance to go before we were at our final stop, and I had made a prior booking at this hotel for the night, using my credit card. I KNEW they had taken the money out for payment as I booked it. Our room had been paid in advance, definitely! But she had no indication of that on the booking sheets.
She leaned on the counter, looking frustrated and impatient. She was tired, the day had been long for her too. “Thing is, my dear,” she informed me, “the airline may have made all these arrangements for you from the U.S., but a hacker got into the airline schedules, reservations and everything yesterday and the entire company is in turmoil. We have no record here of anything you did. I’m afraid you will have to pay.”
I was, once more, aghast, exhausted, reeling from the repeated blows and bad luck. How was I attracting all this madness??
And just at a time when I was so vulnerable. How much more could I take? I had exactly enough left to pay the hotel bill and have breakfast. Thankfully, the bus to the small airport was included free!
To be in transit with absolutely no more money is an awful feeling I would not wish on anyone.
Eventually Louise and I arrived in the Canadian north once more, glad to be away from the desert sun, at least. I thought everything would be fine now.
The hospital had booked me into a motel, so we went straight there. They took a note of my credit card and did not, thankfully, want any money up front right then.
After all, I was a nurse about to start work. Surely they weren’t worried?
Apparently there was an end to their easy-going habits, because when I went in for dinner, no amount of explaining would move them. No dinner or anything else until I could pay at the till on my way out.
Well, I went back to my room, hungry. Louise, at least, had dry food in her supplies. Thank God. Fortunately, the room’s coffee setup supplied me with a beverage. I went to bed munching on a bag of peanuts left over from the flight’s bounty.
Next morning I phoned the hospital administration office, thinking I might get an advance on my first pay. I told them my situation, but they could not produce a check that quickly. Certain procedures had to be completed. I had to go for the introductory session, for example, and other things, before they would pay me a dollar.
Desperate now, not able to figure things out properly, I made a poor judgement call. What I should and would have done if my brain had been working, was to go down to Social Services and explain my plight. I might have gotten a little hardship money, enough to tide me over. Or I could have phoned my younger brother.
However, I walked to the hospital and went into my new ward, where I knew no one yet. There was a Registered Nurse seated at the front desk in the nursing home, and I approached her uncertainly.
“Hi! I’m the new R.N., I’m starting tomorrow. I just arrived and I have a problem…”
I explained to her that I was in a desperate spot and needed to borrow some money.
She was dismayed. Didn’t know what to do. I was a total stranger. However, her good nature won out and she dug down in her purse and handed me a sum of money…I don’t recall how much. Enough to get a couple of meals at the motel.
I promised her I would return it as soon as I got my first check, which would be a week or so I thought.
She did not look terribly impressed with her first sight of her new colleague.
That first check took longer than I expected, and I had to borrow again, this time from the Head Nurse. She gave me $150 in cash. She was not impressed either.
I was in hell. What could I do? I had done everything right, and yet everything was in total disarray.
I began my first shift at last. The ward was a well run, pleasant nursing home unit with all the expected range of medical conditions present. The work was the same the world over, and still the same mostly as the work we did as student nurses in Inverness, so long ago in the 70’s. There was very little difference, apart from certain technological procedures, and of course some new drugs.
I had no trouble remembering anything from a long time ago; what I could not do was store and retrieve recent information.
The first couple of weeks passed, and still I could not remember the patient’s names.
Thing was, I did not see this as a problem. I did not see anything as a problem, no matter how my brain misbehaved. It all felt perfectly okay.
My colleagues did not think it was okay. They began to whisper behind my back, ignore me during coffee break, generally treat me as a crazy person who had been foisted upon them.
I had found a house at an incredibly low rent, and biked my way home at night feeling lost and puzzled. Something was wrong but I did not know what.
One or two of the nurses still talked to me, making my shifts bearable. But when I got home at night, I could go visit with my landlord and his wife, two very nice people coping with their own problems.
The Forestry Industry had collapsed, leaving their town in a very bad way. People had been leaving for years, making life increasingly difficult for those left behind. If they owned property, they could not just abandon it and start over. For many, this property was all they had in the world. This was the case with my two new friends.
The house I rented from them showed signs of having been left derelict for a long time. Spiders had nested in the bathtub, setting up colonies in the house.
The whole thing was dark and full of sadness and failure. I wondered if I would be able to continue working, when nothing seemed to be going right.
As always, there were bright, special moments in the midst of difficulties. When we moved into the house, Louise, so happy to get out of the motel room, went running through the house, checking out all the corners, then she headed for the front door, full of delight in the spaciousness.
I was behind her as she ran out the front door and down the steps to the lawn, and as she jumped from the steps to the ground, a brilliant indigo coloured starburst exploded outward from her spine into the air around her, followed by several smaller, silvery bursts of light.
How happy she was to be in a better space at last! I had never seen anything like that explosion of starlight from my little black cat that day.
That evening as I sat on the floor, my back to the wall, reading a book, I looked up and saw her standing in the middle of the living room near me. Extending from the centre of her spine upward right through the ceiling, disappearing into the roof, was what they call a “smokestack chakra”, a line of pure misty blue-tinted light, like a chimney stack, going right up to heaven’s gate.
I was used to seeing her blue aura all around her body, it had been clearly visible for years. But I had never seen that chakra connecting my little cat with ”home” before.
I remembered all the times I had treated her like any old ordinary cat (if there is such a thing) and felt humbled. Spirit had Indeed sent Louise to me all those years ago, a little shadow to watch over me and keep me linked to my angels and guides, through thick and thin.
Finally the day came when the head nurse and the Director called me in for a talk. I still did not understand that my brain was “packing it in”. Neither did they. I never did figure out what the staff around me must think. Perhaps they thought I was on drugs? I don’t know.
Of course, these nurses had been working in a Nursing Home environment for a long time. They had, possibly, lost the awareness of head injury which nurses in surgical or medical would have, or else they might have recognized the signs and been able to get me some help.
What surprised me most was the Director’s first complaint. She was a middle aged woman of many years experience working all over Canada, including the far north. She had earned her stripes the hard way in nursing and now had a coveted position which she clearly felt earned her a measure of respect from the staff beneath her.
She said, “You speak to both the Head Nurse and myself as though you were an equal. Nurse, I have worked from south to north, and if I ever spoke in as familiar a way to my superiors as you do, I’d be afraid they would literally have killed me!”
I found it hard, right at that moment, to relate to what she was saying. Like everything else right then, nothing made any sense. I was not aware of speaking any particular way to them.
I sat before them, so surprised I could not think what to say. Certainly, given the depth and breadth of my problems right then, that seemed a very distant runner-up for most important complaint of the day.
Of course, though I did not identify it until much later when my health had improved, she was talking about the same thing my boss way back in the computer courses had complained about…my sense of hierarchy and normal boundaries were no longer in place. I was sometimes inappropriate in my attitudes. Later, when I identified the problem, I was surprised to realize that after all these years…this would be about twelve years after Lori died…I was still exhibiting some of the same behaviours that had marked my journey back to the “normal” world.
Maybe I wasn’t quite there yet.
But the other complaints were vividly obvious…mainly, I could not remember anything, including the patient’s names.
They really had no idea as to the extent of the memory problem and its ramifications although it was some time later that I realized it myself.
Doing the meds one day, I had pushed the cart into a room occupied by a combative elderly woman who found fault with the staff at every opportunity.
She was lying on her side, exposed, the blankets pulled down around her knees, apparently ready to receive a routine treatment.
I’d had no idea what she was expecting. I took her meds out of the cart and thought about each one. They all made perfect sense except for one large, tinfoil-wrapped object shaped rather like a torpedo.
I stood puzzling over it. What was it? What was its function? Was she supposed to swallow it? Something told me, no…she did not swallow it. It was too big. Well, that left two orifices that might be awaiting its ministrations. Which one was it?
I looked at her. It seemed she was in position for a rectal treatment. So that’s where it was supposed to go. But what about the tin foil? Did I leave it on? Remove it? Did the tin foil have some vital part in the treatment, so should be left on?
I had not the slightest idea what it was, but just then she shouted at me, “Well, hurry up, how long am I supposed to lie here like this, for God’s sake???”
So I moved to her bed and inserted the object, having removed the tin foil first. I hoped it was the right thing to do.
As I inserted it, I waited for her to start yelling at me. Maybe it was meant to be vaginally inserted? Or, should I have offered it to her with a glass of water? No, apparently I had got it right.
The important thing about all this is that at no time did I consider my confusion and doubt to be any indication of a problem. I felt okay.
My brain did not know it was in difficulties. It was solving each question as it appeared. It thought it was doing fine.
No one on the ward ever knew about the confusion I had with the meds; it never seemed important to tell anyone.
Eventually, however, someone observed my inability to perform the most basic nursing duty of all…insertion of a catheter. They complained to the Nurse Tutor, who asked me into her office. She posed some pertinent questions about patient care and concluded that I had no idea what I was doing.
This had led to the interview with the Director and Head Nurse that day.
Next day, I found myself in the local EI office asking about sick leave support. They were fully sympathetic, had already talked with the Director, and my income was set up for the next year.
On my way home that day, I went to the main post office to pick up my General Delivery mail. Unfortunately, I could not remember my name or address, so I could not get my mail that day.
The condition, whatever it was, was progressing at breakneck pace inside my skull.
I had thought the problem was the hot sun in the American South West, but apparently that wasn’t it. I just didn’t know what was wrong with me.
Louise and I flew home shortly thereafter, to my old town where I had worked in the nursing home and been bumped by Loretta, a senior nurse. The place where it had all began!
My friends in the big old house across from the Food Bank took me in for a couple of weeks while I tried to sort out this awful mess.
First thing I did was to make an appointment to see my family doctor, Dr. Watson. The conversation went something like this:
“What can I do for you today?”
“Well, I have been nursing in the U.S. and up north, and something has happened to my memory. I can’t seem to remember everyday things, and I have had to quit nursing as a result.”
He asked me then, “Which part of the U.S. were you in?”
“New Mexico. I see. Well, you probably have altitude sickness.”
I stared blankly, thinking now my hearing was going.
“Altitude sickness?? That’s what mountain climbers get!”
He explained. “I see it all the time here. We live at sea level here. People retire and fly off around the world to travel for months. They travel to high altitudes without stopping to think they have spent their whole lives at sea level. They don’t realize that might create a problem for their health.
“The body and brain take time to adapt to different altitudes. Memory is one of the problems we see with this condition. Also fatigue and confusion. You have all the relevant symptoms.”
I said slowly, “So I haven’t got Alzheimer’s or something?”
“No. I’m sure you haven’t. I’m confident you have altitude sickness. Particularly if you were working in New Mexico. We see it all the time,” he repeated.
“When will my memory come back?”
“I can’t tell you that, I’m afraid. Might be a few months, might be a couple of years. And it might not all return at once. You might even lose some data permanently. But you should get most of your memory back over time.”
It did not even occur to the doctor to order up a set of x rays or scans. If only I could go back to that day. I would handle that interview very differently.
But I felt very relieved. I didn’t have some kind of early dementia after all. Whew. I still had a life to live up ahead somewhere.
Now I just had to survive till my memory returned…whenever that might be.
Returning to my friends’ home, I picked up the local paper and took a look at the Personals. Without a family to turn to, I needed a Guy. Fast.
It did not occur to me once to go to Social Services, get some help, settle into a little apartment and wait till I recovered. I was not able to think that clearly. So I followed my previous experience and turned to the Personals.
Thus I happened to see a small ad that stated:
“Elderly, easy going senior gentleman looking for companion to share lovely home.”
There was a box number, so I quickly wrote off, wasting no time. I could not stay with my friends forever. I was too embarrassed to get in touch with the nurses I had worked with at the Nursing Home. They had disapproved of my going to the U.S. to work anyhow.
Henry and I met at a local coffee shop a few days later.