As an experienced critical care turned cardiac rehab nurse I worked with a couple who remain vivid in my memory. They taught me about love, courage, and generosity of spirit.
John had a heart attack at the age of 52. His risk factors were positive for cholesterol, high blood pressure, and family history. After reviewing his chart, I went to the bedside for our first visit. We began to talk about his symptoms, how he was feeling at the moment and what he thought the impact would be upon his life. While we were talking, visiting hours began. A very attractive man, a few years older than myself came into the room. He introduced himself as Greg and sat down at the bedside. John and I chatted for a few minutes more and agreed to meet the next afternoon to discuss discharge plans and risk factor modification. I suggested that it would be helpful if a family member could be there to hear the information as well.
When I entered the room the next afternoon at our scheduled time, Greg again was sitting at the bedside. We talked for a few minutes and I asked John if any family members would be joining us. He glanced at the younger man sitting beside him, looked up at me and said, “Greg is my family.”
“Okay,” I replied, being perky in that annoying, young know-it-all fashion. “He can’t possibly be your son, you’re much too young. Is he your brother?”
John looked seriously at me, probably astounded at my naïveté, and said, “Greg is my lover. We’ve been together for 10 years.”
I was taken aback…I grew up in the Southern United States where homosexuality is still today not widely accepted and had not been introduced to an openly gay person until college. I had, as far as I knew no gay friends and would not have been much more surprised had John claimed to be a Martian! I did manage to pull my foot out of my mouth and begin the first of our discussions about cardiac anatomy, physiology, and risk factors.
In the late seventies, MI patients were routinely kept in the hospital for ten days or so. As the days passed, John, Greg, and I spoke frequently. We discussed risk factor modification, exercise, diet, medications, cardiac signs and symptoms. I encouraged them to participate in the hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation program. We got to know one another and I saw the deep care and concern that they had for one another, the gentleness that they expressed in little ways as a couple. I was moved and enlarged as a person by observing how they interacted. They were like any loving, committed heterosexual couple with whom I worked.
As the discharge day approached, I found myself avoiding one topic that routinely was discussed with cardiac patients. Usually, I had no difficulty talking to patients about sexual activity. I had discussed sex with men older that my father and twenty-something, single and married people, but never with anyone who was gay.
One afternoon, when I came into the room, John looked at me, smiled, and reached for Greg’s hand. He took a deep breath and said, “I know this is probably uncomfortable for you, but we need to talk about sex. What can’t we do, what can we do, and when?”
I was simultaneously, touched by their courage in pursuing the information they needed and embarrassed by my discomfort. Their concern for my feelings should have been unnecessary. They put me at ease with their openness and empathy. We discussed their usual sexual practices and although I had no readily available resource materials to help, we spoke of general principles. I promised to investigate further and get additional information. We were able to find appropriate advice to share with them and clarify their questions. Whenever I got tongue-tied at not knowing exactly how to discuss something, John or Greg would help me.
John was discharged in good condition with a good prognosis. He attended our cardiac rehabilitation program for a few months and I was able to see his physical condition improve steadily. Psychologically, John moved through the same adjustments as anyone with a major illness. But he spoke often to me of how Greg’s support was helping him through the emotional ups and downs of recovery. John returned to work and, the last I knew, was living well with his disease under control in the same loving, committed relationship.
I don’t believe that I was prejudiced against gays in 1978, but they were outside my conscious experience, different…unknown. It was in a time before AIDS, when being gay was less dangerous than today. John and Greg gave me a tremendous gift, to see individuals who were different from myself and ask, “Are these good people? Do they care for one another and for others? Do they harm anyone unnecessarily?”
I have met many, many people since who are “different” in one way or another, as we all are. We are all part of the tapestry of humankind, rich with color and texture. Although my mother, who is also a nurse, tried to explain it with words as we grew up, it was demonstrated fully by two wonderful men who hugged me one afternoon and said, “It wasn’t so hard, was it? Thanks!” I hugged them back and replied, “Thank YOU.”
Donna Nolten RN
Santa Cruz CA
– excerpted from Touched By a Nurse©