Silver linings

As Marie’s footsteps faded in the background I lay out the medications for after dinner and bedtime. I heard what sounded like some evening announcements echoing from the dining hall and then the scraping of chairs as campers got up to leave after dinner. The heavy stomping of campers coming up the back stairwell announced their pending arrival to the health office. Surprisingly I just had my regulars and counselor Rob.

I got through the regulars efficiently and then pulled out the small tub from under the sink. I started to fill it up with hot water and then poured in a generous amount of epsom salt.

“Come on in, Rob!” I called out to him. He was sitting on the floor and he quickly got up and hobbled into the office.

I placed a chair in the center of the room and motioned for him to have a seat. I placed some paper towels on the floor and then, after mixing the salt into solution, I carefully picked up the tub and placed it on the floor in front of Rob. He had slipped his foot out of his sandal.

“That looks pretty angry.” I said as I took another look at his ingrown toenail.

“It’s tender, that’s for sure,” he said as he gingerly dipped his toes into the water and then cautiously lowered his whole foot into the tub.

I rifled through the top drawer and found the nail clippers and then I grabbed the small garbage can and placed it in front of Rob. “Here you go. You can trim up the nails on your other foot while ya soak. Be sure to cut them straight across to prevent the nail growing into the skin.” I held out the clippers and Rob nodded and took them. He pulled his heel onto the chair and then positioned the garbage can under his toes and started to clip his nails.

“If it’s OK with you, I’m just gonna finish up cleaning out the fridge. I’m in the process of defrosting the freezer.” I told Rob as I ran hot water over the wash cloths and grabbed a tongue depressor.

“Oh fer sure. Go for it.” Rob waved at me. “How long should I soak?”

“Fifteen minutes should be good,” I said as Rob glanced at his watch and I sat down in front of the bar fridge and opened the freezer. I placed the hot towels onto the build up of ice. “So how many years have you be coming to camp, Rob?” I asked.

“Just four,” Rob answered. “I know a lot of my fellow counselors came to camp as campers and then applied to be counselors. I just came to camp for the leadership training and then got hired. This is my second year as a counselor.”

“What do you enjoy the most about being at camp?” I asked as I started to pick at the melting ice with the tongue depressor.

“Being on my own. Away from home, I guess.” Rob answered with a shrug. “I get a little bit of independence.”

“That makes sense.” I nodded and then got up to wring out the cold wet cloths into the sink. I ran them under the hot water again. “It’s kinda nice to break out on your own. Do you have siblings?”

“Ya. I have three younger sisters. They come to camp too. My Dad signed us all up four years ago. I was old enough for the LIT program. My sisters are still camper age, so they will be up during the girls session in a week.”

“Nice. So you all come to camp.” I sat back in front of the refrigerator and applied the hot cloths. I was making headway now in melting down the ice.

“Ya. I think my Dad really wanted us all out of the house that summer. He says he did it for kind of selfish reasons. He didn’t realize we would all love it so much.” Rob gently laughed and shook his head. “So we still come to camp every summer.”

“Camp is a great place.” I said. “A refuge.” I sat back on my heels as I took a break from scraping the ice, nodding to myself and smiling.

“Ya. It really is.” Rob paused and I started chiseling again. “See…my Mum died four years ago in the spring.” I stopped chiseling and my smile melted away. “She had come home from a run. It was a nice spring day, kinda an early summer day in April.” I turned to look at Rob. He was gazing toward the floor. I placed my hands in my lap, still holding the tongue depressor. “She wanted to try for a 5 km run. She was getting ready for a race. She was all worried that she had gotten too out of shape during the winter, so she wanted to try and get in at least 3 km that morning before she drove us to school. She came back from getting 2 km. My sisters and I were all eating breakfast in the kitchen. Dad was brewing his coffee. She came into the kitchen. She was disappointed that she only got the 2 km in, but she felt she had to stop. She told us she didn’t feel well. She felt out of breath. She blamed it on letting herself get out of shape. Over the winter, see?”

“I see,” I whispered and gazed over at Rob’s profile as he stared at the floor.

“She dropped to her knees with, at first, a confused expression, and then her eyes seemed to glaze over as if whatever had drawn her attention had blinded her. Then she pitched forward onto her face. My sisters all screamed. Dad and I rolled her over and that’s when those years of Red Cross swimming classes kicked in. I didn’t find a pulse so I started CPR. Alison did rescue breathing and Dad called 911. They told us she had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Her heart probably wasn’t beating normally during her run. I forget what they called it…” Rob paused trying to think of the term.

“Ventricular tachycardia?” I whispered.

“Ya. That’s it. They called it a ‘fatal arrhythmia’. No one knew she had it. They told us if it had been detected earlier she could have gotten a heart transplant and lived many more years. But there were just no way of knowing it. She seemed so healthy. But I told my Dad that I always knew she had a big heart. If only they had asked me. I could have told them. But no one asked.” Rob continue to stare at the floor. “Dad told me that it didn’t work quite that way. I was too young to understand at that time.”

I bit my lip and willed myself not to sob.

“If only… If only… We all have our ‘If only’s’. That’s one of the worst parts of the whole thing.” Rob sighed a then looked over at me.

“I agree. The survivors can really torment themselves with the ‘If onlys’.” I paused. “And how is your family doing now?”

“We are doing all right.” Rob shrugged. “It’s hard to see your Mum die right in front of you. So, we all got some counseling. But I keep telling myself that Mum died surrounded by her loving family. If ya gotta go, that’s a good way to go, right?”

“Absolutely.” I gave Rob a tiny smile. “I am so incredibly sorry for your loss, Rob.” I said and my voice cracked a little and then my face crumpled as I tried to hold off the tears.

“Thanks Nurse Anne. Me too. Me too.” Rob looked away and I took a deep breath. “It’s inspired me to think about becoming a doctor. Maybe a cardiologist. I start university in the fall. In the meantime I teach a whole new generation of kids how to do CPR in swim instructions. It didn’t work for my Mum but it can work in some cases.”

“So out of that horrible situation, some good will come.”

“Ya. Plus Mum had signed her donor card. Obviously they didn’t want her heart but they were able to use her tissues and her corneas. They told us she probably made a difference to at least a half dozen people.”

“What a beautiful and generous gift. She sounds like she was a very special person.”

“She was” Rob nodded his head. “Hey, am I done soaking now?” Rob asked. Looking at his watch.

“Sure! That’s probably pretty good. Let me gather some supplies and take a look. Meanwhile you can trim up that side.” I indicated the clippers as I grabbed some antibiotic cream, a q-tip, a cotton ball, tweezers and some gloves. I sat down in front of Rob, put on the gloves and dried his foot with the paper towels. I gently dabbed at the toenail. Rob winched a little as I did so.

“First I’m gonna put some antibacterial ointment on there.” I said as I squeezed some of the ointment onto the q-tip and gently applied it to the reddened areas around the nail. “I’m not gonna lie, Rob, this next part is gonna hurt. I am going to put a tiny bit of cotton underneath the nail so it won’t grow into your toe.” I told him as I pinched a tiny bit of cotton from the cotton ball and using the tweezers wedged it under the nail. Rob inhaled sharply.

“Ya. So you didn’t lie, Nurse Anne! That hurt like heeeeeck.” Rob paused. “Sorry. I almost said a bad word there.”

“Not to worry. You wouldn’t be the first!” I laughed. “OK. We are all done with your toe. Try to soak it at least twice a day. More is better.” I told him as I shook some epsom salt into a ziplock bag, then placed a tube of bacterial ointment in there, a cotton ball and some tweezers. “Here is your own little kit. Reapply the ointment after soaking, swimming or showers. Replace the cotton ball as needed. Come by here if you would rather me do it…or if you just want to talk. I’m cool with that too.” I zipped the bag closed and gave it to him. “I’m glad you are able to talk about your Mum so openly.”

“The therapists told us that it was important not to keep things bottled up because it can fester like an infection. Ha! Just like my toe.” Rob laughed.

“Sorta like your toe.”

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