Small Great Things(6)
Written By: Jodi Picoult
I reach down and scoop the baby up. Turning my back to the parents, I place Davis on the warmer and begin my exam. I can hear Brittany and Turk whispering fiercely as I check the fontanels on the baby’s head for the suture lines, to make sure the bones aren’t overriding each other. The parents are worried, and that’s normal. A lot of patients don’t like to take the nurse’s opinion on any medical issue; they need to hear it from the doctor to believe it—even though L & D nurses are often the ones who first notice a quirk or a symptom. Their pediatrician is Atkins; I will page her after I’m done with the exam, and have her listen to the baby’s heart.
But right now, my attention is on Davis. I look for facial bruising, hematoma, or abnormal shaping of the skull. I check the palmar creases in his tiny hands, and the set of his ears relative to his eyes. I measure the circumference of his head and the length of his squirming body. I check for clefts in the mouth and the ears. I palpate the clavicles and put my pinkie in his mouth to check his sucking reflex. I study the rise and fall of the tiny bellows of his chest, to make sure his breathing isn’t labored. Press his belly to make sure it’s soft, check his fingers and toes, scan for rashes or lesions or birthmarks. I make sure his testicles have descended and scan for hypospadias, making sure that the urethra is where it’s supposed to be. Then I gently turn him over and scan the base of the spine for dimples or hair tufts or any other indicator of neural tube defect.
I realize that the whispering behind me has stopped. But instead of feeling more comfortable, it feels ominous. What do they think I’m doing wrong?
By the time I flip him back over, Davis’s eyes are starting to drift shut. Babies usually get sleepy a couple of hours after delivery, which is one reason to do the bath now—it will wake him up long enough to try to feed again. There is a stack of wipes on the warmer; with practiced, sure strokes I dip one into the warm water and wipe the baby down from head to toe. Then I diaper him, swiftly wrap him up in a blanket like a burrito, and rinse his hair under the sink with some Johnson’s baby shampoo. The last thing I do is put an ID band on him that will match the ones his parents have, and fasten a tiny electronic security bracelet on his ankle, which will set off an alarm if the baby gets too close to any of the exits.
I can feel the parents’ eyes, hot on my back. I turn, a smile fastened on my face. “There,” I say, handing the infant to Brittany again. “Clean as a whistle. Now, let’s see if we can get him to nurse.”
I reach down to help position the baby, but Brittany flinches.
“Get away from her,” Turk Bauer says. “I want to talk to your boss.”
They are the first words he has spoken to me in the twenty minutes I’ve been in this room with him and his family, and they carry an undercurrent of discontent. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to tell Marie what a stellar job I’ve done. But I nod tightly and step out of the room, replaying every word and gesture I have made since introducing myself to Brittany Bauer. I walk to the nurses’ desk and find Marie filling out a chart. “We’ve got a problem in Five,” I say, trying to keep my voice even. “The father wants to see you.”
“What happened?” Marie asks.
“Absolutely nothing,” I reply, and I know it’s true. I’m a good nurse. Sometimes a great one. I took care of that infant the way I would have taken care of any newborn on this pavilion. “I told them I heard what sounded like a murmur, and that I’d contact the pediatrician. And I bathed the baby and did his exam.”
I must be doing a pretty awful job of hiding my feelings, though, because Marie looks at me sympathetically. “Maybe they’re worried about the baby’s heart,” she says.
I am just a step behind her as we walk inside, so I can clearly see the relief on the faces of the parents when they see Marie. “I understand that you wanted to talk to me, Mr. Bauer?” she says.
“That nurse,” Turk says. “I don’t want her touching my son again.”
I can feel heat spreading from the collar of my scrubs up into my scalp. No one likes to be called out in front of her supervisor.
Marie draws herself upright, her spine stiffening. “I can assure you that Ruth is one of the best nurses we have, Mr. Bauer. If there’s a formal complaint—”
“I don’t want her or anyone who looks like her touching my son,” the father interrupts, and he folds his arms across his chest. He’s pushed up his sleeves while I was out of the room. Running from wrist to elbow on one arm is the tattoo of a Confederate flag.
Marie stops talking.
For a moment, I honestly don’t understand. And then it hits me with the force of a blow: they don’t have a problem with what I’ve done.
Just with who I am.
THE FIRST NIGGER I EVER met killed my older brother. I sat between my parents in a Vermont courtroom, wearing a stiff-collared shirt choking me, while men in suits argued and pointed at diagrams of cars and tire skids. I was eleven and Tanner sixteen. He’d just got his driver’s license two months before. To celebrate, my mother baked him a cake decorated with a Fruit Roll-Up highway and one of my old Matchbox cars. The guy who killed him was from Massachusetts and was older than my father. His skin was darker than the wood of the witness box, and his teeth were nearly electric by contrast. I couldn’t stop staring.