By Kay Cavanaugh
I was on a scheduled medical visit to check on an 85-year-old woman, Ms. Ellie, who lived on her own in a one-bedroom, wood-framed house with her cats, Bogie and Bacall. A blast of hot dry air hit me as I walked through the door. Ms. Ellie was sitting in a tattered recliner, practically on top of her wood-burning stove. Cocooned in layers of frayed wool sweaters, she smiled up at me. Her white hair looked as if it had gotten away from her and caught up in a wind tunnel. I could see that her legs were swollen, even though they were elevated.
“How are you feeling, Ms. Ellie?” I asked.
“Oh, just fine. I keep myself warm in front of my stove. Been sitting up all night,” she replied. “Just me and my babies.”
I checked her blood pressure and noted it was dangerously high at 190/100.
“Ms. Ellie, your blood pressure is up and I see that your legs are swollen. I need to take your hose off so I can see how puffy they are.”
“You just do what you need to” she said.
The hose were stuck to her skin like paper on glue and, as I gently began removing them, the skin began peeling away. I stopped abruptly, realizing she’d suffered at least second-degree burns from sitting too close to the stove. She had little feeling in either leg. I knew she needed to be hospitalized immediately if she were to survive the winter.
“Ms. Ellie, I’ve got to get you to the hospital today. Your blood pressure is way up there and I think you have infected burns on your legs.”
“I can’t do that. Who will take care of my babies?” she wailed.
The two cats sitting on the arm of Ms. Ellie’s chair scanned me like a bag of apples at the market check-out. Bogie was sleek solid black and Bacall was the color of rust.
I thought a moment. “I’ll call the ambulance and we’ll take the kitties with you. After I get you settled in the hospital I’ll contact a vet who can board them until you’re well enough to come home.” She sobbed in relief.
I emptied the contents from my black leather nurse’s bag and stuffed the wailing cats inside. They weren’t in a cooperative mood. Ms. Ellie quieted, but the cats, zipped into my bag, screeched a serenade.
When the ambulance arrived we loaded Ms. Ellie into the back. She held out her thin arms. “My babies, my babies.”
I slid beside her with my hidden cargo. “I’ve got them, Ms. Ellie. They’re coming with us.” They matched the shrill scream of the ambulance siren. I unzipped the bag and the cats jumped out, taking refuge on Ms. Ellie’s chest.
When we pulled up to the emergency ramp at the hospital the EMT’s opened the door. Their eyes widened.
“Don’t even bother to ask,” I said.
I moved along with the stretcher, holding the cats to keep them from jumping ship as Ms. Ellie was wheeled into the trauma room. The doctor looked at me like I was crazy.
“Family,” I said, nodding at the felines now tangled in my sweater.
Ms. Ellie was admitted for treatment, but she had a difficult time adjusting to the hospital. She’d suffered second-degree burns over most of her legs and feet and the healing process was slow. She wasn’t responding as well as she should have and she was refusing to eat.
I made a proposal. “If you’ll eat and do your exercises, I’ll bring your babies in for a visit.” The cats were being boarded for free by a local vet. She readily agreed.
Keeping my end of the deal was tricky. The hardest part was the elevator ride up to her room. Bogie and Bacall, hidden once again in my nurse’s bag, became quite vocal. I yawned exaggeratedly, hoping that the people on the elevator would think the noise was coming from me.
When her burns healed and her blood pressure was stabilized she was allowed to return home with her creatures. I had a safety cage built around the stove so she couldn’t get close enough to cause another burn. Sometimes it takes more than medicine to heal the body and soul.
Kay Cavanaugh is a retired Nurse Educator living in Powder Springs Georgia. She volunteers at West Cobb Senior Center, checking blood pressures and teaching health-related classes. Her most recent publication was Will Ya Dance, in the April 2005 edition of the American Journal of Nursing.
Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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