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The Healing Touch

May 05, 1999|AL MARTINEZ

I didn't know which of the patients in St. Joe's intensive care unit was dying or what she was dying of because the nurse in charge wouldn't tell me. She would say only that the patient was an elderly woman and that the family was with her.

A reporter's inclination when denied information is to pursue it until the barrier is either overcome or found insurmountable, and in this business, we are all essentially reporters.

At first I bristled at the notion that a name was withheld and vowed to myself I'd get it. Why should it be a secret?

The death of one old lady in a world obsessed with bloodletting wouldn't change anything. The sun would continue to rise, the stars would shine, the wind would blow, the rain would fall.

But as I wandered the second floor of St. Joe's and watched the nurses, I began to realize why I wasn't given the name. It wasn't just patient confidentiality. It was a question of dignity. Sometimes it's all we have left.

I heard the word often that night. Here was a place where, as another nurse put it, it's easy for patients to lose their humanity. Ravaged by illness or accident, helpless, vulnerable, often not even in control of their own body, they are less than the people they once were.

But there's always a nurse to protect their dignity.


It was near midnight in Burbank. I was in a hospital officially named Providence St. Joseph's Medical Center. I had been invited there by nurse clinician Mickie Grimaldi. She wanted me to see how much nurses care, how dedicated and emotionally committed they are.

The invitation coincided with an announcement from Ventura's Community Memorial Hospital that four emergency room nurses had been fired for refusing to care for a patient unless they were given the $5-an-hour raise that intensive care nurses were already getting.

In dismissing the four, a hospital executive, herself a nurse, said that their actions were "totally against everything that nursing stands for."

I believe that's true. What made the incident news in a world of larger issues is that nurses, traditionally overworked and underpaid, don't do that kind of thing. A philosophy of patient-first has prevailed since the days of Florence Nightingale.

I have personal knowledge of that. A nurse I know, who as a little girl cried over sad movies and injured birds, would swim through the boiling waters of hell to tend a patient. She wouldn't abandon anyone sick for any reason. Her name is Linda. She's my daughter.

The nurses I watched that night at St. Joe's were that way. A mix of genders, races and ethnic backgrounds from seven nations, they moved swiftly through the fluorescence of the ICU, tending, caring and just being near the patients whose lives were in their hands.

Doctors aren't always available. When even a minor trauma can be a fatal burden on a patient's already fragile system, instant response is essential. Nurses provide that.


There were 28 patients that night in the ICU. Some were old, some were young, some were dying, some were getting better. They lay in dim rooms attached to monitors that beeped their marginal existence into a softening silence.

I stood with Grimaldi outside one room and watched a nurse tend a man whose life was maintained through tubes and wires. I watched her wipe his brow and touch his hand. I heard her whisper, "You'll be well soon. . . ."

"Some patients drain so much from you emotionally, physically and spiritually," Grimaldi was saying. "It's especially hard when they die. They leave scars on your soul."

The care nurses give, she was quick to point out, isn't always on a lofty plane. "We diaper them and bathe them and clean up every mess they might make."

It's the healing touch that I recall most from that night visit to St. Joe's, the way nurses used their hands to reassure, to comfort and to tend. Sometimes it was a hand on the brow, sometimes a pat on the shoulder, sometimes an adjustment of the bedding.

Grimaldi has been at St. Joe's for 23 years, not only minding the sick but teaching other nurses basic ICU care. "I can't think of anything else I'd rather do," she said. "It's not the money. It's the honor."

I never did fulfill my reporter's obligation by getting the name of the old lady who was dying. But I guess that doesn't matter much. The sun will continue to rise, the stars will shine, the wind will blow, the rain will fall. . . .


Al Martinez's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached online at

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