Yesterday morning, at 6:30am, Desi tumbled into my room. She was my tech for the morning, which means she would take my vitals, change my linens, bath me, do anything else the nurses asked her to do, etc. Well, that’s what techs are generally supposed to do. Needless to say, I’ve never had a tech volunteer to bathe me, and I usually have to chase them down if I want my linens changed.

“So, let’s get you clean and change your sheets, okay?”
Shocked! “Um, I think they’re going to remove my bandage and pull out one of my drains soon.”
“I can remove the bandage, but I’m not touching your drain. Either way, let’s get you clean!”
“I think I’m okay for the moment, although I’m kinda itchy, but can we do this once my drain is out?”
“Sure sure, but, sweetie, you’re itchy because your skin is dirty, and you do need your hair washed. Do you have shampoo?”
“My hair isn’t long enough to be dirty!”
“Yes, it is; don’t you worry yourself, I have shampoo. I don’t use those chemicals that they give us.”
We both laughed, and she left.

The first time I encountered what the hospital considers to be a “sponge bath,” it involved a nurse handing me a package of adult-sized baby wipes. “They’re really easy! Just wipe yourself down; you don’t even need to rinse!”

I looked at the list of ingredients in the baby wipes and decided promptly that I’d rather smell bad and be itchy. I was not going to rub myself down with Propelyne Glycol, Glycerin, Alkyl Polyglycoside, Diazolindinyl Urea, Polysorbate 20, Sorbic Acid, and Nonoxynol-9; NOT rinse it off; allow my skin to absorb all of it; and then do it again the following day. Don’t these medical supply people understand that patients in a hospital are ALREADY sick?

Needless to say, this five foot nothing ball of energy named Desi with her shampoo had peaked my attention.

The last time I had a real sponge bath was before my grandmother died. For a few years, starting around age 10, I would go home to her apartment on Tuesday evenings after school, spend the night, and then she would drop me off the following day. I did this because she lived closer to both school and the shrink that my parents had decided I needed to see. I also did this because it was awesome. She would pick me up in her bright red 1963 VW Bug and drive me to my appointment. I would do some homework while waiting for the shrink and then run circles around him because he didn’t think that a 10-year-old could be smarter than he while she drove home and prepared dinner. Every week it was exactly the same: shake’n’bake chicken, macaroni and cheese, broccoli, and a glass of milk. While everything was in the oven, she would take the bus back out the 15 blocks or so, and we would take the bus home together; I would use my student coins (which cost 25 cents), and she would use a quarter along with her senior citizen pass.

We would eat dinner in front of the TV (this was totally forbidden in my house, and she knew this) while watching Jeopardy and trying to beat the contestants. She was a former beloved grade-school teacher who was still wonderfully “with it” but no longer faster than the folks on TV, which frustrated her. I was simply thrilled to be eating my way through crispy chicken thighs and her amazing mac and cheese and knew enough not to complain when she would only offer me seconds on the broccoli. She would then clean up while I would watch Wheel of Fortune (she thought it was stupid; looking back, I agree) and would then sit and read with me while I finished my homework.

Before bed, without fail, she would draw a bath, but only fill it a few inches, and then give me a sponge bath. From tip to toe, she would lovingly soap me up and then rinse me down using a wash cloth. We would talk about friends, my parents and sister, what she did that day. She would often chastise me on not knowing more about politics (“you do live in the nation’s capital, after all”), and I vowed to at least scan the headlines for the following week to not let her down again. I would tumble into the pull-out bed in the second room while she put on her elegant night-gown, and we would continue the conversation while she put five miles on her stationary bicycle. (“Why, Grandma?” “As you get older, my dear, if you gain a pound in one day, you should spend that day losing it, and doing exercise and eating properly is the only way to do this successfully. I’ve ridden five miles on this bicycle every night for at least 30 years.” She was from Los Angeles, after all.)

These memories are my most vivid of her.

Yesterday afternoon, Desi came back into my room and informed me that it was time for my sponge bath. I walk into the bathroom and she has washcloths and towels and a chair and her “non-chemical” supplies all laid out.

“Okay love, where’s your clean clothing?” I went and got a new tank top and PJ bottoms. “I built you a little pocket that you can carry around your neck when you’re not in bed for your ECG monitor. I noticed that you don’t really like wearing the hospital gown.”
Touched. “Thank you.”
“Alright now, strip and sit down.”
I did as I was told. And the next 15 minutes were sheer bliss. She removed the ECG stickers (“just for 15 minutes, love. If you have a heart attack, I’ll know.”), made sure that I had brushed my teeth, washed my face and hair (it’s still so short that she didn’t need a basin or anything), taught me how to clean my sternum wound, scrubbed off the leftover iodine or betadine or whatever they used to clean my chest before surgery, and then washed the rest of my body with the wonderful hands of a mother of six and a grandmother of multiples. I couldn’t help but tell her that I hadn’t experienced anything like this since my grandmother died. She laughed. This was not the first time she’d heard that.

After rubbing lotion into my back (“we need to keep that fluid moving around your lungs, and its ridiculous how dry it is here in the hospital”), she helped me get dressed and put me in a chair while she changed my linens. We then went for a walk around the floor together (“of course I’ll come with you, otherwise you fall down and I’ll feel bad!”), and then she put me to bed.

My husband and a couple friends were in the room by the time I woke up from one of the more restful sleeps I’ve had in some time, and I relayed them with the story and told them that Desi would be back today so we’re not leaving until she’s done this for me again. One of our friends laughed and responded: “came for the surgery; stayed for the sponge bath.”


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