Literary Journal – Fall 2016

Making a Living and Dying by the Earth

By Jane Bleam

Early in my nursing career I learned that hope is important to the patients and their families.

Alderson Broaddus College, now the Alderson Broaddus University, is situated on a ridge overlooking the town of Phillipi, located along the Tygart Valley River in West Virginia. When I was a senior nursing student there in 1963, we did not have intensive care units. Recovery rooms for patients were in their infancy. Senior students were to “special” critical patients in their rooms.

Many miners came into Broaddus Hospital with various medical problems, but Dan was the only such critical patient ever assigned to me. He was a sixty-year-old coal miner who had just had his chest crushed by a cave-in of the mine’s walls due to a gas explosion.

Dan was placed on a ventilator to help with his breathing. An intravenous drip was used to replace the fluids he had lost, and a catheter in his bladder allowed us to check his output in case his bladder had been crushed too.

At the beginning of my three-to-eleven shift, my instructor explained all the equipment to me.  I reviewed with her what she had said. She asked me if I had any questions and if I needed any more guidance.

Looking up at her, I said, “I have one more question, but I can not ask it here!” I couldn’t help but notice that Dan’s family was not present. Still, I didn’t want Dan to hear my question.

She suggested that we go down the hall to the workroom. When we were in there, I asked, “Doesn’t the family know he is going to die?”

She looked at me saying, “The only thing the family has is hope, which we should not take away from them. We do not know if he will make it or not!”

Coal taken from the earth is the miner’s way of making his living.  Historically, coal mining, which provides 40 percent of the world’s electricity, is very dangerous. Underground shaft mines can be 1,000 to 2,000 feet deep, and the list of coal mining cave-in disasters is long.

Dan had no visitors that evening while I was on duty. My shift was full and busy caring for Dan who was still alive when I left the hospital at eleven o’clock. I later learned Dan had died during the next shift. His mining-caused death a classic example of making a living and dying by the earth as well.

The lesson I took away from my experience with Dan: it is always important for a nurse to continue to allow a patient’s loved ones to hold out hope for recovery. It isn’t given to us to know what the outcome will be, so we must always preserve hope.

Laura Jane Michie-Bleam, retired Professor Emerita of Nursing at Montgomery County College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, served the college for thirty-two years. She traveled extensively, and was often required to write or speak to groups about her travels. Jane’s interest in children led her to take writing courses from the Institute of Children’s Literature.