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  • Writer's pictureclairemariemiller1

My Beginnings in Healthcare

I have decided that whatever memories surface in the night I will write. Order is not important...

This morning, on January 2, 2024, I am remembering a time when my caretaking qualities developed as I sat with a childhood friend’s mother who was dying. I was around the age of 12. The friend, Candy, was a late-in-life baby. Her mother was also a chain smoker. Many times when I went to play with Candy, I would instead sit with her mother and listen to her stories.  

When her mom was dying of cancer, her bedroom was dark and not scary to me. Again, I would just visit and sit quietly with her. Somewhere inside of me I felt that this was who I was meant to be, a caretaker. This would lead me to becoming a candy striper. (In writing this, I just connected the name "Candy" to my beginnings.)

At 16, I enrolled in the volunteer program at GBMC (Greater Baltimore Medical Center). My neighbor was a physician at this hospital and it was the closest to our home just outside of Baltimore. It was suggested to me by the doctor that I try this out and might then go to the Radiological Technology School that was based at that hospital. This was a good financial option as opposed to going to college. It would cost less and I would have a job upon graduation. 

Training completed, my first day was in radiation therapy with two other volunteers. We were to transport patients to and from the department for their treatment. There were two technicians, Fran and Doris. Doris and I later became good friends. 

The day started out with our duties - transporting, folding linens, bringing patients into the inner area and getting them changed for the treatment. Dr. G was head of the department and was often administering chemotherapy. Doris and Fran would lay out the patients’ files and instruct us in the next task. Mostly, we were just hanging around and watching the process.  

One of the patients I brought back was a large man with a work shirt that had the Ford emblem on it. I will call this patient Mr. Ford. I brought him into the treatment room and gave him a patient gown to change into. I returned to the inner area of the department with the other two volunteers, where we sat and chatted away as we waited for our next task. 

Mr. Ford walked out of the changing area in his hospital gown covered in blood. He was trying to talk and blood was coming out of his mouth. Immediately, Fran called, “get the children out!” - that was us, the children. A code red was called over the hospital intercom. We stood outside the waiting area and watched the flood of machines and people pour into the inner sanctum of the radiation department.  

Silence, then murmurs, and then giggles by the other two volunteers - nervous energy. The name of Mr. Ford’s wife was paged. She and her daughter returned to the waiting room in panic and tears. The mother was ushered in and the daughter was left on her own. Following my budding intuition, I went to her. She was speaking her fears, her father was dying. Nothing to say, I just stood by her, a sentinel, a presence, an empathic knowing of her deep pain. 

The machines slowly came out. It was a moment, it was 3pm, time had stopped for Mr Ford. The daughter wailed and the mother came to comfort her and take her away.  

When my mother came to pick me up after my shift, she was speechless. She did not know what to say to me. The volunteer office brought the three of us in to see if we were okay, but nothing they said made any sense to me. I wanted someone to explain how he was here one moment and, at 3pm, he was gone. No one wanted to carry on that conversation. So it was dropped, yet it lived inside of me, even to this day. 

Wanting to experience this place at the edge of life and death, and to be in the hospital, I signed up for x-ray school a week after this event. My friends were all going off to college. They had fun, and play, and so many experiences I had no way of relating to. My life calling was to delve deeply into the body, to literally see it inside out; to have connections with patients that felt profound to me.

I was 17 when I began Radiologic Technology School the following year. The immersion into this world would shape me in so many ways that have informed my work as a massage therapist. As I write, I have 45 years experience in massage, plus seven years of x-ray experience, and I am still fascinated by all things physical, and metaphysical.

I will proceed to another death I was to be part of... I was in my second year of x-ray school, age 18 now. My task was to take a portable lung x-ray for an elderly patient. A fellow student and I were doing this together. As I lifted the woman up to place film behind her, she died in my arms. I felt it, she collapsed and her spirit left her body. The fellow student freaked out, acted scared, and ran for the nurse. I was still holding the woman when the nurse returned. She released me from that position and took her pulse. The nurse expressed annoyance that this woman, whom she had just cleaned up and did all this work on, died. No sadness, no honoring, no sacredness, just annoyance. It was all quite weird. And again, I was confused and wanting to talk; and no one did.  

Two weeks later, my questions about death were to begin to be answered. Our x-ray class was to attend a lecture at another hospital within walking distance. It was Sheppard Pratt, a mental health hospital. The lecture was on death and dying. The timing was perfect. The presenter was Elizabeth Kubler Ross. It was 1973. Her book, On Death and Dying, would lay the foundation for hospice and the conversation about the journey of leaving - a journey that touches us all, as birth touches us all. Both events are often met with fear and ignorance. 

During a Q&A at the end of her lecture, I raised my hand. I shared that story of the woman dying in my arms. Elizabeth said the woman was waiting for someone to hold her. I was honored and will always remember her passing with reverence. 

This is one of the foundational stories of my life’s work. 

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