Germ Warfare

Holding the phone with Ask-A-Nurse.

Once in a great while, the tension ratchets up: The caller's a potential suicide, or a person who is sure a mistake's been made. He can't be having a heart attack -- he's too young.

"Have you ever heard of saving a life over a phone?" Marie asks. "Well, we try. We will call 911 to make sure the suicide called in. We'll call the police and say we'd like a followup. They don't always have time, but we like to hear from them."

Occasionally, she's able to follow the initial call to its conclusion. The guy with inexplicable abdominal pain later phoned to say it was cancer, but they'd found it early. The woman whose daughter had an allergic reaction to a bee sting called to say that, after a three-day hospital stay, her daughter was going to be fine. Most of the time, though, Marie hears nothing at all.

A row away from Marie, the Nurs at Station 18 -- "Does my name matter?" -- has a background in obstetrics, so today it's her job to call a list of fourteen women who've given birth and been home from the hospital for around 48 hours.

"We have several docs who contract with us to make these calls," she says. "I ask the basic health questions, but I'm also just calling to give them the idea that help is only a phone call away. It's not at all uncommon after you have a baby to be tearful, overwhelmed, depressed. Hey, when I had my first, I knew all about nursing critically ill babies, but I wasn't quite sure how to take care of the perfectly healthy baby I'd just brought home."

A few minutes later, Nurs 18 is deep in a discussion of that favorite postpartum oxymoron: Get plenty of sleep. Sometimes the new mother's asleep when she calls, and this makes her happy. When the new mother is awake, much of the talk centers around "what is normal," the Nurs says. "Women just want to know that. They're so worried about being good parents."

And the concern over what's normal, she adds, stretches far beyond childbirth. "I'm thinking of a newlywed husband who called me with some, uh, gynecological concerns. He called from his honeymoon in New York! I read to him out of Understanding Your Body and suggested he buy it for his wife. He did, and he called me back to say thanks."

"What do you think was going on there?" I ask.

"I don't know," Nurs 18 says, a little sharply, "and we're trained not to speculate. But it's hard not to wonder. Once I had a call from a woman whose husband was in alcohol treatment but for some reason was passed out in the truck on the front lawn. There may have been alcohol withdrawal, or just plain old alcohol."

"What did you tell her?"

"I told her that 911 is a real good option," Nurs 18 recalls.

But you don't hear that often here. Far more common, I realize as I prowl the aisles between the cubicles, is discourse about the eternal ailments: vomiting, diarrhea, fever, flu.

"The flu, oh, yes," agrees Nurs Karen, who is between calls. "I don't think we've even reached the plateau on this one yet. But a lot of it is simple. If a kid is sick to his stomach, you don't put milk in his cereal. People don't know that. Much is not simple. Chest pain -- a lot of denial goes along with that."

A conversation from the partition behind her floats over the wall. "Now try this," Nurs Ralph is saying. "Hold your baby as if it were a football..."

"Here's what I hear all the time," Nurs Karen continues. "'I did something silly, I did something stupid. I splashed something in my eye.'"

"You need to see your doctor," Nurs Ralph urges. "Do you have a doctor? Do you have a place to go? Good."

"Or nosebleeds. People think they should take them lying down," Nurs Karen says. "They shouldn't. They should stay upright."

"Take and make yourself a salt solution," Nurs Ralph suggests. "Boil you some water..."

"They feel stupid, but they call, which is good," Nurs Karen says. "They're too hard on themselves."

"And I want you to get in to see your doctor," comes the calm and steadying voice of Nurs Ralph. "Yes. Yes. I know. I can tell by your voice."

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