Academic journal article Nursing Education Perspectives

The Evening Back Rub

Academic journal article Nursing Education Perspectives

The Evening Back Rub

Article excerpt

NOTE

WHEN I WAS IN NURSING SCHOOL IN THE EARLY 1970S, I learned how to give a great back rub. I perfected my skills after graduation, first in intensive care and later when I worked on a cancer ward. Every evening about eight, we nurses would push our carts from room to room, changing rumpled sheets, offering fruit juice with crushed ice, and giving every patient a back rub. For most patients, this quiet ritual brought relief. from boredom and loneliness. For me, it became a private interlude during which I could listen to my patients, their tales of home or their fears of death. While my hands massaged their backs, patients could escape, at least temporarily, the hospital's stark walls and the day's long hours.

This is how it went. After taking a patient's blood pressure and checking the monitors that hummed and pinged their monotonous melody in the background, I'd draw the curtain, crank up the bed so I wouldn't have too far to bend, and help a patient turn on her side. Next, I'd fold the sheet to expose her back, the skin red and ridged from the pressure of the bedclothes, the bedside light casting the hills and valleys of her flesh into shadow. Sometimes, a patient's ribs stuck out like ladder rungs.

I'd take two towels from my cart and open them, covering the length of sheet next to my patient and tucking the towels' edges under her body. Lifting the green plastic basin from her bedside stand - the basin that held the next day's washcloths, the small bottles of mouthwash and lotion, and an assortment of wrapped gauze, combs, and Styrofoam cups - I'd scoop up the lotion bottle, snap it open, and pour a little pool of Jergens into my palm, warming it until the scent of almonds drifted into the air. Alone with my patient in the half-dark, I'd slather the lotion from shoulders to buttocks, gently swirling my hands in long strokes until her entire back was slick and soft. After a minute, the patient might begin talking, and I'd gradually increase my fingers' pressure until I was rhythmically kneading the skin, increasing blood flow, and urging the patient's body to let go, to trust me, to relax.

Patients who were silent most of the day would often reveal their secrets to me at night, comforted into intimacy by the back rub, that simple act of caring: they longed for their own homes but were afraid to leave the safety of the hospital. …

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