The police officer stands silently in the doorway of my patient’s room, watching as I listen to her chest with my stethoscope. Her breath sounds are clear and equal on both sides. Next, I check the tube threaded through her nose into her stomach. It’s draining dark green fluid into a suction canister fastened to the wall. I measure the amount of fluid in the canister and record that number in the electronic chart. I feel her pulses. They’re strong, and easy to find, coinciding with the numeric value for her heart rate on the monitor overhead.
When I’ve finished the assessment, the officer speaks. “I don’t know how you nurses do it. I couldn’t work with hurt kids. It would break my heart everyday.”
“I don’t know, I guess I think of it more as helping,” I offer. “I couldn’t be first on the scene like you police officers. I mean, putting yourself in lethal danger in order to protect the nameless public takes more heroism than I could muster.”
“I guess we just sort of pick the kind of work we’re able to do, then. By the way, my name is Mike.”
“Hi Mike, I’m Niki. I’d shake your hand, but I need to wash it first, after I take off the glove. I don’t want to be rude, but I’m pretty cautious about spreading germs.”
“Understood. Thanks for the information.” Mike has a cute smile, and gentle eyes. “Well, I gotta go and see if the detective has any new information for me. If she’s cleared for now, is it okay if I send the mother in to see her kid?”
“Well, Nurse Niki, if you have any questions about the case, or information for that matter, feel free to give me a call. Here’s my business card.”
I watch Officer Mike leave the PICU, holding his card in my hand. He seems like a nice guy. Maybe in a few weeks I will call him. Maybe it’s time I stop wearing my wedding ring on my right hand and take it off altogether. I put his card in the pocket of my jacket.
Half an hour later, my patient’s mother enters the PICU. She’s young, early twenties. She’s wearing grey sweats that hang from her slim hips over a pair of black plastic flip-flops. A blue and black hoodie drapes over her ribbed white tank top, revealing an equally skinny torso. She looks like she doesn’t get enough to eat, but her acrylic nails sport elaborate nail art. She’s wearing huge gold hoops in her ears too. ‘Go large or go home,’ comes to mind.
Mariella, our social worker, accompanies her, and introduces me to the mother, who looks me up and down suspiciously before noticing her unconscious daughter on the hospital bed with all the tubes connected to her. She starts to cry. This is the cue I depend upon in order to form some sort of therapeutic bond with parents of abused children until who hurt the child? is established.
I drag a lounger from the other corner of the room to the child’s bedside, and Mariella settles the mom into it, and then fetches a cup of coffee, and a blanket from the PICU’s warmer. She wraps the blanket around the mom’s shoulders, before handing her her card, and leaves the unit.
An awkward silence fills the room.
“So. Do you have any questions?” I begin.
“How long is she going to be in the hospital?”
“We don’t know that yet. Hopefully, she’ll come off the breathing machine sometime tomorrow. She’ll probably stay another night here, then be transferred to the regular pediatric unit, and spend some days there too. She’ll go home when there’s no bleeding and the surgeon lets her up out of bed.” I avoided adding, “Unless social services removes her to their custody.”
“Why would she bleed? I thought the surgeon fixed her?” She eyes me suspiciously again.
“She repaired your daughter’s liver, that’s right, but a lot of the body’s blood travels through the liver. There’s always a chance that the wounds will still bleed. She could lose a lot of blood again if that happens. We’re watching her closely to prevent that. That’s what all of these machines are helping us do.”
In my experience, parents involved in their child’s abuse take one of two stances with nurses: They are either angry and argumentative, or they campaign to win our sympathy. This mom chose the latter.
“He didn’t kick her, you know. He works hard, and when he comes home he expects things to be in order. Sasha isn’t a good girl. She doesn’t do what she’s told. I have to get on her all the time. She lies too. I don’t know why they think he kicked her. Maybe she’s got cancer and it’s making her bleed.”
“Sasha doesn’t have cancer. The doctors can see that with all the tests, and during the surgery too. He’s not Sasha’s father, right?”
“Naw. He left before Sasha born. He was no good.”
I fall silent taking in this information.
“Has he hurt you or Sasha before?” I know I’m going to have to chart her answer.
“He’s only mad when we deserve it. He don’t hit when we do what we should.”
“Have you ever thought that you and your daughter deserve to be safe in your home? That a man shouldn’t hit a woman or child, ever?”
“You got a man, Nurse? You know how hard to raise a child alone is?”
A sudden realization slapped me in the face: This woman and I are both single mothers, wanting to have relationships with men who are not the father of our children. I could be her. The thought chilled me.
We didn’t talk much the rest of the shift. In the morning, Mariella returned with a female police officer. They escorted the mother out of the PICU. Soon afterwards, Mariella returned.
“They’re taking her down to the station. The boyfriend is saying she kicked the girl. He says he tried to stop her. We’re hoping she’ll file a report against him with the details of the assault, so he can be charged.”
“You might want to know,” she added, “The mom is known to us. We have an open file on her. Sasha was the result of rape by her mother’s boyfriend. And our boyfriend, we’ve seen him before too, when his father was arrested for breaking his arm.”
I can’t believe Mariella earned a Master’s degree to do this kind of work. I think her job is more difficult than mine.
Later, I talk to Liz about it. “I hate when the lines between victim and abuser are blurred like this. I don’t understand how a mother wouldn’t choose a better life for herself, and especially for her child.”
“You’re new at being a single mother Niki,” she said. “You’d be surprised how lonely it can be out there.”
Something about the way Liz says it makes me shudder.
I know I won’t be giving Officer Mike a call anytime soon, either.