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I took nurse aide training the summer before my junior year in high school because I knew, as an aide, I would always find work. My parents, poor working-class Midwesterners who never finished high school, discouraged thoughts of college. At age 18, I married a young man similar to my social standing and put away my dreams of higher education.


In 1970, I worked the evening shift with three other aides and an orderly in a small hospital in southern New Mexico. Personality and work conflicts pitted the orderly and me against two of the aides. I tried to ignore the tension until it affected one special patient.


Giving no heed to his physician's warnings about his end-stage cancer, George made the long trip from Rhode Island to visit his lonely daughter and two granddaughters. The Army had sent his son-in-law to Korea. George wanted to see and talk to his "Lollipops" during his last days. Of course, he ended up in the hospital.


Massive burns on George's back from radiation treatment caused him great discomfort. The slightest wrinkle in the sheets made him moan. After awhile, George began asking for me or the orderly only. In their reports, the RNs voiced their annoyance while the other aides snickered.


One evening as I helped George, he launched into his usual effusive thanks, but this time he mentioned my unhurried gentleness. I immediately understood how the other aides had treated him. Later, during that shift, I entered his room as he refused to tell one of the aides what he needed. She flounced out of the room, rolling her eyes. I slowly, slowly pulled his sheet taut, noting tears in his eyes. As before, he began his litany of thanks.


I held up my hand to stop him. "Why are you upset?" I asked.


"You and the orderly are the only ones who seem to care about me. If I could fix my bed or get my own ice, I would. I don't want to cause anybody more work."


"Stop right there," I interrupted him. "This is our work."


"But you do it as if you care about me."


Suddenly inspired with the memory of Jesus' words "When you do it for the least of these, you do it for me" (Mt 25:40), I said, "Well, I don't want you to."


He frowned. "What?"


"I don't ever want you to thank me again. I want you to say 'You're welcome.' If you didn't need me, I would have no work, no purpose. It is I who thanks you for giving me worth. So, what are you going to say from now on?"


The light of dignity replaced the tears in his eyes. "You're welcome."


Time passed, and George's strength slipped away. One afternoon he broke into a mischievous smile and handed me an envelope. It contained a full scholarship to the nursing program at the University of New Mexico. I dropped into the chair, tears streaming down my face. With a breaking heart, I explained how I had to work and could not take four years for schooling.


Energized with an expression of desperation, he asked if I could manage two years. The hospital's evening shift supervisor had attended an associate degree program and mentioned her alma mater when she wrote my letter of recommendation to the University of New Mexico. Not long afterward, I held a letter from the University of Albuquerque School of Nursing inviting me to complete the application process.


Two weeks after receiving George's gift, I clocked out at 11:30 P.M. and sat at his bedside with his daughter. We took turns giving him ice chips as he struggled for each breath. Exhausted, I left at 1:30 A.M. when he slipped into a coma.


When my home phone rang at 7:00 A.M., I knew it was George's daughter.


"Daddy's gone, about a half hour ago."


My throat clogged with emotion. "I'm so sorry" was all I could get out.


"He woke up twice after you left. The first time he told me good-bye. The second time he whispered, Tell Sally 'You're welcome.'"


I graduated with honors in 1973, and to this day I remember George when I humbly say to my patients, "Thank you."