By Frederic Friedel
I have written about it previously: while studying at the University of Hamburg I was supporting myself by working in a hospital, doing what in German is called “Intensivwache,” intensive patient care. Always with children, in cardiology and surgery. It was my job to keep some desperately ill child alive, for twelve hours, from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. In a previous article I told you about Timo and Regina, and in another story about little girl named Melanie, whom I had the privilege to look after. This latter article ended with my being invited to assist in Melanie’s pioneering balloon catheter procedure, as a reward for looking after her for the first weeks of her life. It was an unusual honour for an intensive care worker to be given this opportunity.
Well, during the procedure the surgeon started asking me questions. He cut a slit in Melanie’s groin and pulled out a tiny vein: “What is this called?” he asked. “The femoralis,” I ventured. No, the full name was what he wanted to hear, what it was a continuation of, and the path to the heart. When I could not answer these questions he asked: “What semester are you in?” The fifth, so I must have had anatomy?! I had to confess: the fifth semester in Philosophy, not medicine. He frowned, stopped asking me questions and simply said: “We need to talk after the operation.”
I had been caught, busted. The policy at the University Clinic was that intensive care nurses had to be recruited from medical school, students in the fourth semester or higher. I had sneaked in with the help of a friend, Gisela, a nurse who had arranged for me to start on her watch and taught me all the skills I needed to know in order to fulfil my duties in intensive care. You have a lot of time during the twelve-hour shifts, and there were plenty of medical books lying around. I read lots of them, especially the passages describing the problems my patients had. I became fluent in the vocabulary, and everyone assumed I was an advanced medical student.
Here is an example of how things went: in the early hours of the morning there was a general wake-up of the children, temperature, blood pressure, medication, washing. Some patients required intravenous injections, and for this you had to wake a doctor — someone who had been sleeping for three or four hours. He would stagger into the room, administer the injection and fall back into the bed in the doctors’ rest room, until he was summoned again for the full morning round of examination.
One day the chief doctor was on the morning round, looking at the charts, when he said: “Wait a minute, did Arthur get his IV injection?” “Yes,” I confirmed. But he hadn’t been woken up a few hours earlier. And none of the nurses were authorized to give intravenous. So how did he get the injection? “He got it,” I said, firmly. The doctor simply accepted it — he was deeply grateful for not having been woken up at 6 a.m. In the following days and weeks he would simply check the chart to see whether Arthur had received the IV — no questions asked.
The following had transpired: at the time I was planning a trip to work with the herpetologist and wildlife conservationist Romulus Whitaker, who lived in southern India. Rom had informed me that since we would be handling deadly poisonous snakes, often in the jungle, I needed to be able to administer intravenous injections — to other workers or to myself. He said I could learn it in a hospital or from drug addicts. My job in the university clinic made the first option the obvious choice. And a nurse (not Gisela, the one who got me the job) volunteered to help — she wanted to learn IV herself. So we spent a number of romantic nights in the hospital: I stuck a needle into her arm, she stuck one into my vein. We became very good at it. And one day I simply gave Arthur his early morning IV shot, without waking the doctor. He accepted it, thankful for the little extra rest he got.
Naturally this was all completely illegal, and criminal proceeding could have been launched against me (and him) for what I was doing. But in face of the massively overworked medical staff this doctor chose to simply look away. Not so the surgeon who operated on Melanie. After the balloon catheterization he interviewed me for an hour, spoke with members of the hospital staff, and then informed me that there would be no criminal proceedings against me, but that I could never again work at the University Clinic.
For me this was a tough call — I loved my work with the children, and had become very good at it. Was there any way out? There was. When the nurses in children’s cardiology heard about the decision they immediately launched a vigorous protest, and had it overturned. This because of my remarkable physique and my charming demeanour. No, strike that. The reason they stood up for me was that I was the only person who repaired medical equipment.
There are tons of electrical and mechanical devices keeping the desperately ill children alive, and periodically one or the other — an infusion device, a mucus suction pump or a respiratory ventilator — stopped working. There was an emergency procedure in place that involved rushing technicians to the hospital, often in the middle of the night — once, in fact, we had a helicopter bring in a replacement ventilator. But I discovered that it was usually just a lever or some other part that was stuck, and I would open the machine and get it working in minutes. So instead of national emergencies the rallying call was “The Bennett’s stopped working, get Friedel over here immediately!”
And that was the reason why the nurses of the clinic went marching on the streets, protesting my dismissal. Well, not really marching — they signed a petition, and I was allowed to resume my work. I continued looking after Melanie for two weeks, and she rewarded me with the first smile of her life. And that made it all worthwhile. I am eternally grateful I did not earn my livelihood during university by unloading ships or waiting tables, as others did at the time. I was lucky enough to have a job that shaped my life.
Also read, by Frederic Friedel: