The Changing Face of Body Language

As the daughter of an Army Drill Sergeant, I grew up around Fort Jackson, SC. We shopped at the PX, attended the Roman Catholic church on base, bought 29 cent gasoline and went to the movies for a quarter. But the place I seemed to spend most of my time was in the outpatient infirmary. I remember the wooden structures that were meant to be temporary when first constructed, the highly polished wooden flooring and ramps, the “shot” room where I received more than my share of Pen V for recurrent pneumonia and tonsillitis…many decades later it still feels like yesterday.

My most vivid memory though, is the nurses. All wore Army issue 100% cotton uniforms, starched and white, with sharp caps and polished shoes. From my vantage point, I could see little beyond large bosoms in sharp Playtex bras that preceded them into the room like the prow of a ship. They terrified me. I remember hiding behind the medicine refrigerator when I knew a shot was imminent.

These nurses were tough, and a pediatric department was nonexistent. No lollipops for good behavior (and I would not have earned one in any event). I was expected to behave like a small soldier.

Many of these women had served overseas and their pride was evident in their bearing as they marched down the polished hallways, shoulders back and snapping salutes from the brow of their stern faces. They were subordinate only to God and outranking physicians. The distinction between the two was not always clear but my inferior position was never in doubt. My mom was also a nurse, and I secretly thought she identified with them more than me, her youngest national treasure. Of one thing I was certain; I would never become a nurse.

So much for that resolution. I too grew up to wear polished shoes and cap for graduation, but the hospital I worked for had a wonderful pediatric floor. Body language had changed. I wore child-friendly smocks, tossed the cap after I kept losing it in the nebulizer tents, and there was a rocker in every room. No scary nurses allowed. Gently approaching children instead of pinning them down like feral cats was a solution the military had never conceived. Sheltering in mom’s embrace for injections took away some of the sting, and parents were calmed by having their own hands held after a particularly hard night.

When I transferred to ICU, body language was equally if not more central to the care of adults. They scrutinized our faces for indication of bad news as did their families. Amidst their lines, wires and tubing, they were vulnerable. Their spirits were buoyed by unhurried baths and clean bedding. Their families were less apprehensive when their loved ones looked well-cared for, and sometimes they needed a hug. They wanted to know we cared and that we would be there when the call light was not on, and that our shift ended when the work was done and not before.

In the latter 70’s and early 80’s, you did not wear gloves to start IVs, give baths, take vital signs or draw blood. Gloves were only required for trach and wound care, suctioning, Foley insertions, continent care and when isolation demanded it. Although today’s MRSA-resistant hospital environment demands protection for staff and patients, those gloves also communicate “unclean” to patients who crave human contact. Now more than ever, smiles and reassuring body language are indispensable to good patient care.

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