A Mysterious Illness

Eileen Valinoti

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After graduating from nursing school in 1954, I went back home until a hospital apartment became available. My mother bragged about my achievement to all the neighbors (my nursing expertise; my brilliant grades; my job offers overflowing in the mailbox). Our working class neighbors began to seek my advice on every imaginable affliction—arriving unannounced after dinner to show me their strange rashes, moles, warts and boils. I was amazed by their blind faith. Overnight it seemed my nursing degree had given me magical powers. Anxious to please, I did my best, keeping my answers as vague as possible.

I never said, “You should check with your doctor.” because in our hardscrabble neighborhood, no one had a doctor. Doctors were summoned one step ahead of the undertaker. Doctors cost money. Joseph Fitzgerald, the M.D. who lived around the corner from our house, would charge you an outrageous ten dollars and for what? To give his opinion, when everyone on our street agreed that my guess was as good as his.

Worse was to come. One evening I came home from work exhausted and drenched from the rain. I had forgotten my umbrella. All I wanted was to change my clothes, eat my supper and go straight to bed.

My mother met me at the door.

“Mrs. O’Connor called,” she told me. “Pat is very sick in the hospital and she asked if you would go in tonight to take care of her.” Pat was Mrs. O’Connor’s daughter and a childhood friend of mine. I hadn’t seen her in years. She married at 18 and had three small children. My mother paused, and avoiding my eyes said, “I told her you’d go.”

“Oh, no!” I groaned.

“Her mother was crying,” my mother said. “What could I say?” Then, lowering her voice as she always did at bad news, she said, “Pat must be very ill.”

The last thing I wanted at that moment was to deal with another sick person. Sick people took it out of you, drained all your strength and energy. A flu epidemic was raging in the city and two nurses on my floor had called in sick that day.

My mother said that Pat was at a hospital in the Bronx, a place I’d never heard of. She said the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with her and that she had been there a week, getting worse every day.

I ate my supper, changed into a clean uniform, and with a feeling of foreboding, set out for the long subway ride.

I saw at once that Pat was desperately ill. Her skin stained a dark yellow—clearly jaundiced. Her eyes glassy. She looked toxic, a word we used to describe someone with a high fever or a severe infection. She was moving about restlessly. Her mother sat at the bedside weeping, holding a handkerchief to her streaming eyes. Next to her were Pat’s two sisters—one holding Pat’s hand, the other rubbing her feet. An I.V. dripped slowly into Pat’s right arm.

Once the women saw me come in, they lost no time gathering up their coats and purses and bidding me goodbye. Mrs. O’Connor said a few words as she left, but I couldn’t understand her thick Scottish accent. After they had gone, I went out of the room to look for another nurse. Surely someone would appear to give me a report on my patient. But the dimly lit hallway was empty.

The sight of Pat so sick and the dawning realization that I alone was responsible for her shocked me wide awake. Her chart said she had been jaundiced and a spiking high fever for a week. No diagnosis had been made. “Asian Flu” one the doctor wrote, adding a large question mark.

I went back into the room. Pat opened her eyes and said, “I’m so glad you’re here, Eileen.” I felt encouraged that she recognized me and her speech was clear. Then she closed her eyes and lay back against the pillows.

I felt her forehead. It was burning. I took her temperature-- 104 F. I started to sponge her with alcohol.. Her pulse was so rapid and thready I could hardly count it. After the sponge, her fever fell to 102 degrees. She looked more comfortable and her pulse slowed.

I held a glass of water to her lips and she drank it down. “I’m so thirsty,” she said. She’s drinking. Temperature dropped. I focused on these developments to cheer myself, when suddenly she began to shake violently.

“I’m freezing,” she said, teeth chattering and shivering uncontrollably. I covered her with blankets and finally the chills subsided and she fell asleep.

I went outside to get gauze and tape and was securing her IV (it seemed loose from her restlessness) when Pat woke abruptly and began thrashing wildly. Once again her fever spiked to more than 105 F. I ran to the kitchen for ice cubes for makeshift icepacks and placed them under her arms and next to her groin. I sponged her again.

As I was working frantically, a nurse came into the room, a young woman who might have been a supervisor. She didn’t look at me or speak to me, only stood at the bottom of Pat’s bed, gazed at her sorrowfully and said, “It’s such a shame, and she has three little children.”

They’ve given up on her, I thought with horror.

Pat’s hair was sticking out in damp clumps and I was rubbing it dry with a towel, when she said to me, “Do you think I’ll get out of this, Eileen?”

Her words filled me with dread. I remembered a sentence from one of my textbooks, “Mortally ill patients often express a feeling of impending doom.”

Pat leaned back on the pillows; her eyes were rolling to the back of her head.

She’s going to die, a voice said in my head.

I ran out to the nurse’s desk for Pat’s chart. I found her doctor’s home phone number on a back page and dialed. It was 3 AM. I had lost all track of time.

The doctor picked up the phone at once. I told him his patient was in dire straits, her fever over 105 F and I couldn’t get it down. There was a pause at the end of the line that seemed an eternity before he answered. He told me to give Pat a dose of steroids by I.V. push. Cortisone was new at the time, not even mentioned in our pharmacology course.


“If she gets any worse,” he said, “call me and I’ll come in.”

Any worse.

I called the pharmacist and ordered the drug, and he ran the floor flights to get me the medicine ASAP. He was an older man, out of breath from the climb, the night’s dark stubble on his chin. I could have hugged him, I was so grateful for his efficiency. I drew up the medicine in the syringe, went into Pat’s room and slowly injected it into her I.V.

I sat at her bedside, my hand holding her wrist, my fingers on her pulse. I was afraid if I let go of her, she would slip away from me. I had no idea how she would respond to the dose of steroids. I had never given it nor seen it given. I thought of the worst possible scenario--an allergic reaction, anaphylactic shock, a terrifying struggle to breathe.

I ran outside; at the end of the hall an oxygen tank was propped up against the wall. I checked the gauge to make sure it wasn’t empty--anything was possible in this God awful place. Turning it on, I heard the hiss of air and pushed the tank into Pat’s room. But there was no nasal cannula, the small tubes to deliver the oxygen. I went again into the treatment room, pulling out drawers and cabinets until at last I found one half hidden beneath a stack of syringes.

In Pat’s room I stood with my hand on her wrist. My heart was thumping so loudly I thought it should wake her. Someone had hung a religious medal at the head of her bed. On it was a likeness of Christ- the caption below read:

“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

Have Mercy on Us.

All around the bed was the detritus of the night’s struggles; the basin filled with sodden towels; the half empty bottle of alcohol; water from melting ice packs dripped on the floor. I would have to clean up the mess. It would be a disgrace to leave the room in such disorder. I focused my mind on my little plan--how I would get clean sheets and pillowcases and change Pat’s bed. I would comb her hair and dress her in a clean fresh gown. She would look neat and tidy and cared for. I was in a trance of fear, but these thoughts calmed me.

A pale light started coming in through the window, and I noticed a change: Pat’s pulse was stronger. I could count it now, the beats rhythmic and robust between my fingers; her skin felt cooler. I took her temperature; it had dropped to 101 degrees. My knees went weak with relief.

Every joint and bone in my body ached and I felt a terrible thirst. I went to the sink for a glass of water; in the overhead mirror I saw that every trace of my make up was gone and my hair was disheveled. I splashed my face with cold water and brushed back my hair.

Pat lay curled on her side, snoring softly. I took away the ice packs and changed her bed and gown, combed her short curly hair. She only stirred slightly and murmured.

When I got home from the hospital I called Pat’s mother to tell her she was better. Her mother never really spoke to me, only sobbed into the phone. I went to bed and slept for twelve straight hours.

* * * * * *

A few weeks later, Pat came to visit me at home, bringing along her three little children. Her four-year-old daughter handed me a gift, a pretty necklace of blue beads. Pat had been discharged from the hospital the week before. No one ever found our what caused her illness. Her complexion was ruddy and glowing. Every trace of jaundice was gone. She exuded a feisty vitality, standing in the middle of our small living room, a cigarette dangling from her lips. Her youngest child, an infant of seven months, was stretched out on a blanket on the floor. The room hummed with the baby’s gurgles of delight.

When the children were out of earshot, Pat said to me, “I thought I would die that night.”

I knew she had told all the neighbors that I had “saved her life”, insuring my reputation as the local witch. “Saved her life?” I hadn’t pulled her from a burning building or rescued her from drowning. But long after that night, I wondered if Pat would have survived if I hadn’t been there. It was impossible to know. Still, no one at the hospital was looking after her. An overwhelmed night nurse whom I never saw struggled to attend to many other patients. What I do know with certainty is that the steroids quenched the flames of her raging fever and steadied her racing heart. I had been there to give it, a young girl barely out of school, my own heart beating furiously.

In his book, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, British medical historian Dr. James Le Fanu writes that the discovery of cortisone was one of the definitive moments in medicine, along with penicillin and the polio vaccine.

“One of the drug’s many benefits,” he writes, “is how it can carry a patient through an acute medical crisis such as a life threatening infection.”

A few months after her visit to my house, Pat moved with her family to Ireland, her husband’s country of origin. She gave birth there to four more children, bringing her family to a total of seven. I never saw her again.

I moved away too. A hospital apartment became available and I said goodbye to the old neighborhood. I was happy to be just another anonymous soul in the big city. When I would come home after work to my apartment, no one appeared to seek my medical advice and that was fine with me.


About the Author

  • Photo of author

    Eileen Valinoti is a retired R.N. whose writing has appeared in Glamour, Parents, Health, ARS MEDICA, The Healing Muse, the nursing anthology "Meditations on Hope" and in the forthcoming book Body and Soul- Selected Stories From ARS MEDICA.

  • Published: May 17, 2011