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‘Now you will work until your number is called’

Summer of ‘68 is a bad memory for a lot of guys my age, those of us who are still here and can remember. Not being in school or having friends or relatives at the draft board meant your days as a civilian were numbered and the prospect of getting a job were bleak, as those who were hiring knew that if they hired you, it wouldn’t be for long.

And so it was in ‘68, with three years of college and after what I consider to be a gifted ability to not study and yet survive as a “student,” I finally managed to not be invited back to the party at Georgia Southern. No one was surprised, least of all my dad, who simply shook his head and said, “Now you will work until your number is called.” We didn’t have a basement and after being out of the house for three years, I knew going back home was not something I wanted to do.

When I think back to those times, I try not to think of that particular day when the world of work entered my life, but instead dwell on a remarkable head nurse at Bulloch County Hospital named Jean Coleman, who took a chance and hired me as an orderly for whatever time I had left and a wonderful fellow named Bennie Smith who was the head of the orderlies and black. In fact, all of the orderlies were black, except me of course, but I did love The Temptations, as did most of the white kids back then.

I walked into Mrs. Coleman’s office as cold as a dead fish and vaguely remember falling to my knees (not really, but you get the picture) begging for a job doing anything that paid money. I had no idea what orderlies made or what they did, but Bennie taught me that they did everything the doctor wouldn’t and the nurses couldn’t. We worked the men’s floor which had multiple rooms and a ward of six beds with no air conditioning on the second floor in the old part of the hospital.

The mornings began with taking patients’ vitals and a bath, and I can’t remember where I washed my white uniform, but lord knows they needed washing every day. The large windows were open to allow for air flow unless one of the patients had delirium tremens (DTs), in which case they remained closed and locked.

The patients were mostly old men suffering from diabetes or heart related problems with catheters for somebody on the menu every day. Hours could be spent trying to get some old guy with a heart condition to urinate because of the complications inherent in the procedure. If you don’t think running water in a sink will make you “go,” you’re wrong. Amputations were common, but we only saw the results, when the patients were brought back to the room to live or die. The burn unit was a striker frame in a small room on the third floor and watching an 8-year-old die on a striker frame is something you do not forget.

During the course of my six months there I saw only a few deaths and each time it got easier, but the 8-year-old never goes away. When dad had said, “Now you will work,” I think in his heart, he knew that that’s what I needed to do but had no idea of the work that waited. When I left, it was with relief and yet a heavy heart because I knew a different life was available for me, but not for the orderlies who had shared their working lives and knowledge freely with me, knowing I wasn’t going to stay.

I’ve worked many jobs, even had a career, since Bulloch County Hospital, but none have had the influence on me as have those six months spent on the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. I saw families dealing with loss, and illness, but I was also privy to the looks of relief and exhilaration when a loved one got to go home. I saw the cycle of life begin in the birthing unit and end, for some during the night, when sometimes alone, God called them home. I wonder if Nurse Coleman and her orderlies realized the gift they had given me and one I never forgot when one day, years ago, I had to “go to work.”

Sonny Harmon is a professor emeritus at Georgia Military College. Visit his blog at http://sharmon09.blogspot.com.