My sister Kelli’s appendix ruptured and there were complications, so I went back home to Wisconsin to be with her. I arrived Saturday night and went straight to the hospital in Green Bay. I’m a teacher by trade, not a nurse. I felt inadequate and clumsy as the nurse did her best to maneuver around me. When the she left the room, Kelli said she needed to use the bathroom. I rushed to her aid and quickly learned I wasn’t following procedure. Her IV equipment had to be unplugged from the wall, the cords had to be arranged correctly, and the IV stand needed to face Kelli in such a way that she had access to a handle to lean on. She was in tremendous pain. I worried that if I didn’t work quickly, I would add to her suffering. In the bathroom, more procedures. She needed help arranging the IV stand, sitting on the toilet, and completing personal tasks. Back in the room, I forgot several of the steps it had taken to get her out of bed. My sister’s husband and my cousin stood by looking on like bystanders at the scene of an accident. I had no idea what I was doing, but nonetheless approached each task with gusto.
Once Kelli was seated on the edge of the bed, it was my job to lift her legs and gently swing them with her body as she reclined onto the bed. Before doing this, I saw that the sheets were crumpled. I knew Kelli would be more comfortable if I smoothed them out and tucked them in. From somewhere I heard Kelli’s pained whisper, “I need to lie down.” I ignored her as I tugged on the damn sheets. Again she pleaded with me, but I was hell-bent on making her comfortable. Finally the sheets were in order, and I gently lifted her legs. When it was over, my cousin asked if I still planned to take an EMT class I had been talking about. I said that no, I had decided against it. “Good,” she said. “That’s a good decision.” I looked over at my brother-in-law who nodded in agreement.
I am the woman who gets things done, takes control, makes snap decisions, plans events, and manages a home and a career. I went out into the hall and noticed the plaque on the wall— Room 231. I am the oldest of four girls. The Colburn girls. It is my birthright to take care of my sisters, and I have done my best—doling out advice, smoothing over arguments, keeping in touch, but there wasn’t a thing I could do for Kelli. I had shown up unannounced and she had cried; thrilled to see me. That would be enough. I was there to be with her, not to do for her.
Over the next several days, I sat with my sister where the sub-zero temperatures, daily tasks, jobs, social media, and other mundane distractions were checked at the door. Sometimes she slept and sometimes she wanted to walk around the nurse’s station. We watched awful television and when she was up for it, we talked about how she was feeling. The human body is a remarkable organism. Fevers and a high white blood cell count told us she had an infection that needed to be addressed. Debilitating cramps came on without warning like sirens alerting nurses she was in pain. Bed sores were a reminder we are creatures meant for locomotion.
Kelli is at home now and doing better. I am doing better, too. Room 231 reminded me I cannot control everything. I am limited in my skills and influence, and that it is enough to just love the people in my life.