Years ago Campus Life Magazine printed the story of a young nurse who talked about learning to see her patients, especially those who wore what she called “a distressing disguise.” I first encountered this story when I read Out of the Saltshaker by Rebecca Manley Pippert. When I read it, I was stirred deeply to remember the dignity of every human as bearers of the image of God.
One of the nurse’s first patients was a woman named Eileen. Eileen was totally helpless. A cerebral aneurysm, a broken blood vessel in the brain, left her with no ability to control her body. As far as the doctors could tell, Eileen was totally unconscious and unable to feel pain. They surmised that she was unaware of anything going on around her.
Her care consisted of being turned by the hospital staff every hour to prevent bed sores. In addition, she was fed twice a day through a stomach tube.
Caring for Eileen seemed like a thankless yet unending task. “When it’s this bad,” one older student told the new nurse, “you have to detach emotionally from the whole situation. Otherwise you’d throw up every time you walked into her room.”
As time went on, Eileen was treated more like a thing than a person. Oftentimes the hospital staff made crude jokes about her and her room 415. As a matter of fact, it reached a point that was gross and dehumanizing.
The young student decided she could not treat this person in this way. So, she talked to Eileen. She sang to her and even brought her little gifts. She did this even on frustrating days, days when it would have been easy to take out her frustrations on such a patient.
One particularly frustrating day was Thanksgiving Day. Suppressing her frustration, the young nurse walked into Eileen’s room and said, “I was in a cruddy mood this morning, Eileen, because it was supposed to be my day off. But now that I am here, I’m glad. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss seeing you on Thanksgiving Day. Do you know it its Thanksgiving Day?”
Suddenly her speech was interrupted by a ringing phone, and the young nurse turned to answer it then looked quickly back at the patient. When she did, she said that Eileen was “looking at me . . . crying. Big damp circles stained her pillow, and she was shaking all over.”
It was the first and only signs of human emotion Eileen ever showed any of them. Though it wasn’t much, it was enough to change the whole staff’s attitude toward Eileen. To them, she became a person again.
Not long after this, Eileen died. The young nurse closed her story with these words that stabbed me to the core, “I keep thinking about her . . . It occurred to me that I owe her an awful lot. Except for Eileen, I might never have known what it’s like to give myself to someone who can’t give back.”
As believers, we are called to give to those who cannot give back. Jesus motivates us with the words, “Truly, truly is say to you, as you did to the least one of these, my brothers, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).” The fact of the matter is that every human is made in the image of God. When we go about our day, we do not know who is hurting and who is listening, and if we are honest, there are times when we do not care. But sometimes God places us in a situation to notice our neighbour’s pain and to learn how to give ourselves to those who cannot give back. When we do, we experience the grace of God and live under the smile of heaven. The God of heaven often sees and rewards when others are blind with neglect.