The Nurses and CNAs of Bellevue

You want to talk frontline!

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Photo Credit — Jim.henderson / Wikimedia Commons

Being hospitalized sucks. And being hospitalized now? Oh, dear baby Jesus in Heaven with all of your angels, I can’t even.

And those angels? Those would be the nurses and nurse aides (they’re now called Certified Nursing Assistants, CNA’s, although I bet they still only earn minimum wage and get next to no respect which is so wrong) working their hearts out in emergency rooms and hospitals around the world right now.

In 2003, I began having a range of unpleasant symptoms including fever, severe sore throat, excruciating joint pains, and a rash on my feet and around my eyes. The short version of this story is that I had developed an autoimmune disorder known as Still’s Disease, a type of rheumatoid arthritis that typically afflicts teenage girls (make of that what you will).

Here’s the long version for later:

From the minute I was admitted to the ER at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, the nurses and CNA’s were absolutely incredible. For the most part, even though they were clearly swamped with work, those people were gentle and kind to me.

I arrived in the back of a livery cab because an ambulance would have taken me to the nearest hospital instead of Bellevue which, since I didn’t have health care insurance, was the place for me. Because I couldn’t bend my legs due to the insane level of knee pain I was experiencing, I was stretched out on the back seat. The security guards who came out to the car were pretty insistent that I could get out of the car on my own but an emergency room nurse intervened.

She quickly ordered one to go for a wheelchair and then got a couple of orderlies to carefully lift and pull me out of the car and into the chair. She was joined by another nurse who oversaw the operation which took some time. I was completely incapacitated by that point and had been in terrific pain for weeks.

Bellevue Emergency Room; everything you imagined

It was determined immediately that I would be admitted, however, it was a 16-hour wait until a bed opened up.

The emergency room in Bellevue Hospital is exactly as chaotic and filled with mayhem as you may be imagining right now. In addition to semi-conscious drunks being parked in corners to come to, there were also prisoners hand-cuffed to their stretchers and accompanied by police. It was noisy and there was a constant surge of patients and health care professionals.

Because of the congestion, my stretcher was pushed against a wall. Two of my friends had left home in the middle of the night to be there with me (yes, you’re right, I do have the best friends on the planet!).

Upon arrival, the doctor in charge stopped by and told the nearby nurse to get me some Advil. Advil? Are you kidding me? He’s the doctor. I got Advil. Five hours later the shift changed and the new doctor listened to my sad story, put her hand over mine, and said, “I understand that you’re a recovered addict and respect that, but you need morphine”. Halleluiah!

Behind the doctor, the nurse preparing the injection smiled reassuringly.

The fight against catheterization

Once I was up on the floor, my stretcher was pushed against the wall (again) because my bed wasn’t ready yet. Immediately, a CNA came by to catheterize me.

Ok, maybe you haven’t heard the horror stories, but I certainly had and there was no way this was going to happen. To her credit, the CNA didn’t argue with me.

Finally, I was wheeled into a four-person ward and several strong young CNA’s lifted me into the bed I’d be in for the next week. One got to work cannulating me so that I’d have an IV tube going into my arm for the entire stay. That was bad enough especially when an impressive arch of blood sprayed up and all over the bed (which was the signal for my then-boyfriend to exit, looking a bit green). That didn’t phase my CNA who quickly got everything under control and finished the job with a pat to my arm.

But then that first helpful young CNA was back to catheterize me. I don’t know why, but I was absolutely adamant. No catheter, dammit!

In addition to the morphine, I’d also been given a very high dose of Prednisone which is almost universally used in treating autoimmune disorders. This had gone a long way towards decreasing the level of pain but getting up to go the bathroom was still an ordeal. It was one for me but it was also really a hassle for the nurse or CNA who had to stop what she or he was doing to come and help me. At this point, my angels were beginning to lose patience with me.

Except for the night charge nurse. I can’t remember his name but he was the soul of kindness and patience. After I explained that I did not want to be catheterized, he never asked again. Because I was so dehydrated upon arrival, I was hooked up immediately with a large bag of saline solution and that meant I needed to pee nearly every hour.

Every single time I rang that bell, my angel would appear and patiently assist me and my tubes and IV pole with bags to the bathroom. Then he would wait until I was done and help me back to bed.

Every single time.

It took three days of this nonsense for me to come to my senses. That first very earnest young CNA came back, reiterating that she’d done this “thousands” of times and I wouldn’t feel a thing. Oh, whatever. Just get it over with, ok?

She was right. I couldn’t believe it when she stood back with a big smile and said she was done. Btw, there are few sensations more confusing than needing to pee and then, bizarrely enough, no longer needing to. The CNA’s, bless them, were assiduous in replacing that catheter bag as well.

She cried

Two days after I arrived (and before I was catheterized), I was taking my IV pole and all my tubes and bags for a little walk when I passed the nurse who had been called out to help me out of the car that night. Her eyes went round and her mouth fell open.

Then, to my astonishment, she cried. She stood next to me, holding my arm, and weeping to see me on my feet and able to move.

I had known I was in bad shape when I got to the hospital, but wow!

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Photo Credit — Work Projects Administration Poster Collection / Wikimedia Commons

No end to the angels

CNA’s, especially in a hospital-like Bellevue, are incredibly overworked. They are expected to care for too many patients and are disrespected by nearly everyone above them in the hospital hierarchy. While some nurses seem to understand the vital role CNA’s play and are appreciative, I never saw one doctor recognize that a CNA was even in the room with them.

But no hospital, nursing home, assisted living facility, or hospice could function without them.

In my days working as a housekeeper in nursing homes, the CNAs were not only held in low esteem by the nurses and administrators even the patients often disliked seeing them. This is because they’re the ones who have to do the dirty, difficult, sometimes humiliating jobs in the facility. The jobs no one else wants to do. Who wants to spend their workdays changing ostomy bags, bathing incapacitated or elderly people, drawing blood, or cleaning up after patients have been sick? You? Not me!

Throughout New York City and around the world we pause in the evenings these days to pound pots and pans, shout and clap, play music and, in my neighborhood anyway, play the tuba as a way to thank these hard-working, underappreciated professionals.

Certainly, the doctors and even the administrative managers are on the front lines next to the nurses and CNAs and we’re all grateful for their work and sacrifices. But doctors are given great respect for their work which they would be hard-pressed to continue without the incredible services of these badly underappreciated professionals. When I’m King of the World, every CNA will earn at least $35 an hour and have full benefits including six weeks off with full pay every year.

If you haven’t yet had the experience of being hospitalized, rest assured that you almost certainly will in the future. Let’s all hope it’s not in the near future, but you can at least know there are angels there.

They will take very good care of you.

© Remington Write 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Writing because I can’t not write. Twitter: @RemingtonWrite or Email me at:

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