1. Murphy-Shigematsu, Stephen EdD


What the orderly knew.


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I did the messy work in the hospital. I was an orderly. They'd call me when they needed someone to clean up the mess. I'd clean up male patients who couldn't hold it and couldn't wipe themselves. They seemed embarrassed, so I'd try to act like it was no big deal, chatting while I wiped and washed. I tried to look as natural as possible, like I didn't mind it, as if the smell didn't bother me, or even as if there was no smell. I tried to show them that it made me feel good just to get them cleaned up.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Lisa Dietrich

I'd get called for other stuff as well. ER would call me to pick up a dead body and take it to the morgue. OR would call me to take away an amputated body part. They'd call me to move someone from ER to OR, from bed to toilet, from bed to stretcher, from bed to wheelchair, from wheelchair to bed.


Though I'd get called all over the hospital, I was stationed on the recovery unit to help people who'd lost control of their limbs, mostly from strokes or accidents. First thing in the morning, I'd help them wash themselves, or if they couldn't do it, I'd bathe them right in their bed and rub some cream on their skin and give them a little massage. They really liked that. I'd help them eat, and after breakfast, I'd get them out of bed and take them down to OT and PT.


I got to spend a lot of time with patients. Some people never spoke. Like Mr. Malek-he wore a scowl, his face showing only frustration and bitter irritation. But others had stories to tell and I listened. While I washed them or while we were moving around the hospital, I'd ask them questions and they'd talk. I learned a lot about their lives.


When I passed by the nurses' station I'd often hear them talking about the patients. The doctors always acted like they were in charge and knew a lot, but it was the nurses who really knew what was going on with the patients. They were with them every day, while the doctors just came and went.


Still often I knew things that even the nurses didn't know. Like the time they were all wrong about why Mrs. Jones was dispirited. I felt like saying, "I can tell you why Mrs. Jones is upset today. She's not down about her treatment. It's because her daughter promised she'd bring the grandkids by yesterday and she didn't show." But they never asked me what I knew, so I never told them. I didn't think they'd listen to me anyway. They weren't arrogant like most of the doctors, but still, I was just an orderly.


Whenever I had a chance, I'd hang out in the patients' rooms. Some would reminisce about their lives. Others would complain about the pain, or rage about how life was cruel and unfair. "Why me?" they'd ask, knowing I had no answer. Some even shocked me by confiding that they were tired of life, didn't want to be a burden, and really wanted to die. I just sat there and listened. I didn't know what to say, but they didn't seem to mind.


I heard a lot of good stories and met a lot of good people, but I wasn't an orderly forever. When a higher-paying job with good benefits came along, I quit the hospital and started working at a factory. I needed the money because I wanted to go to medical school. As much as I liked working as an orderly, no one seemed to think much of me or my role.


Eventually I became a psychotherapist. I realize now that the patients I sat with thought a lot of my role. By listening to them, I was acknowledging them and their pain. Today, after an entire career of listening to patients, I realize that when I was an orderly, I was doing something important after all.