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Sometimes They Get Better

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I wrote this for an assignment in class last year. It's a true story of a patient of mine I used to work with. The style is a bit different, what with the poem in the middle, but let me know what you guys think. I'm most concerned about how well it flows between time periods 'cuz I'm thinking of submitting it to my school's literary journal.



“Why c-can’t I have some chicken nuggets, Cap’n Morgan?” Dat salutes me shakily and wraps his arms around my waist. I carefully assist him from his wheelchair to the bed, a two minute ordeal.


“Aw, Dat. I wish you could. You know that.” I crouch down and give him my most reassuring smile, but he doesn’t look at me.


“I-I know. You do a good job,” he slurs. He lays down in his bed, turns to his side, and curls up beneath the covers.

- - -

He lives in one of those places where the webpage features nurses shining their too-perfect smiles next to those suspiciously endearing mission statements. You know, the statements where the word “compassion” is used just a little too often. Life seems great for a sick kid here. Smiles and compassion. What more could they need, right?


One long hallway with scuffed floors and chipped paint is home to over thirty pediatric residents at this healthcare facility. Nurses rush down hallways, meds in hand, minds focused. They smile when time permits, but never without tired eyes. CNAs run about, lifting paralyzed patients twice their size or carrying soiled clothing to the laundry rooms. Alarms ring in frequent, piercing beeps. Another child’s ventilator has disconnected. Another child can no longer breathe. Respiratory therapists respond, sprinting back and forth from room to room, as multiple machines sound in unison. Three nurses, two respiratory therapists, and three CNAs are all held responsible for over thirty unimaginably ill children.


In one room, a two-year-old boy lies still, eyes motionless. A ventilator gently pumps air into and out of his lungs. His father threw him against a wall when he was just a few weeks old, head first. Now he’s on hospice. Next to him dances a giggly toddler whose heart developed outside his chest. He smiles and hops from foot to foot, twirling his ventilator tubing in circles. He acts just like any other baby. You know, except for the ventilator and heart thing. Across the hall sits a teenage boy who was perfectly normal until a bus hit him on his sixteenth birthday. Now he’s paralyzed from the neck down, breathing through a trach, and eating through a feeding tube lodged in his stomach. He’s as competent as you and me, but he can’t talk. He can only blink once for “yes” and twice for “no”. Peek into each room, and you’ll find a new child with a different story. There’s nothing as simple as a broken leg here. This is long-term care, and most of these kids won’t see the outside of these walls for the rest of their lives.


However, there are a few children who do get better, and one boy stands out in particular. In the final room lives Dat, a patient who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury at the age of seventeen, a patient who can barely form a sentence, let alone walk or use a toilet.


- - -


Eighteen Months Ago...

Venom surges through my veins and the world creeps along at half-pace,

the outline of my vision a smudge on a lens, my arms two invisible masses.

Laughter echoes within the car, and apparently I’m laughing, too.

My arm raises the bottle above my head, and we’re all cheering, I think.


Grimy teeth and clammy pores,

maybe seven of us stuffed inside this musty truck.

A hand grasps my shoulder, shakes me around,

a toothy smile mouthing something at me, don’t know what.

We yell something, though, about booze and girls.


My vision fades like a retreating tunnel,

and I hear myself cheering, see my hand rolling the window crank.

A frigid wind sucks the sweat off my forehead, thank God,

and I take another swig.


The bottle flies out the window into the night.

I roar and everyone joins in.

They roll down their windows and sing Slipknot out the window,

leaning their bodies into the wind.

I somehow find my hands and place them on the door frame,

pop my body out into the night and sing along.

Damn, it’s bright. . .


I hold my torso outside the truck, raise both hands up and let out a whoop,

and the light intensifies.

A semi truck horn bellows, rattling my ear drums.

My pupils cower in the brightness, and I’m screaming now.

I find my hands upon my face.


- - -


A bell sounds from a room down the hall as I finish punching my code into the work clock. I squeeze past the nurse’s med cart and greet a few of my fellow employees as they rush in to start their shift.


“Dat needs you,” one of the elderly nurses whines as she hovers over her cart.


I brush her off and continue down the hallway, rolling my eyes as soon as she disappears from my vision. I turn a quick corner into Dat’s room and flip on the light switch.


“Dat! How are you doing today, buddy?” I trot over to his bedside and lean against his end table. Slipknot CD cases and Yu-Gi-Oh cards lay scattered on its surface. Dat continues to ring his remote bell alarm, now holding it in my face and shooting me a stern glare with his despondent brown eyes.


“N-nobody ever comes. They just i’nore me cuz I’m not impor’ant,” he carefully forms his words, attempting to pronounce each syllable the way he used to. He rolls over to his side, exposing a dark colored stain on the back of his jeans. I kneel down and he mumbles, “I n-needed to go to the ba’room. I’m sorry.”


A smile crosses the corners of my mouth, and I gently place a hand on his shoulder. “Dat, it’s fine. Let me help you get cleaned up, okay?”


“T-thank you m’am. At least somebody cares abou’ me.”


I help him sit on the edge of the bed and squeeze my hands beneath his underarms. He shifts half of his weight onto me, and I assist him into his wheelchair. As he settles into his seat, he reaches a hand in my direction. It shakes in the air, and I clasp his cold fingers in mine.


A tear rolls down his cheek, and he diverts his gaze towards the floor. It’s been weeks since his last accident, but his dependency on the workers to take him anywhere remains prevalent.


“Bud, it’s okay. Accidents happen,” I reassuringly rub his hand between mine, but he shakes his head and continues to stare at the floor.


“No. I’m pathetic,” he responds clearly this time and pulls the hood of his black sweatshirt down over his face.


“Don’t say that. Remember when you first came here? Look how far you’ve come, Dat.” I stare directly at his eyelids, but he remains silent and still.


- - -


One Year Ago...


“You’re on Team One today, Morgan,” my nursing supervisor snaps as she briskly walks by.


It’s my first day off of orientation, my first day taking on a team of twelve sick kids by myself. I feel my heart patter, but I try to shake off the nerves.


I head over to the Nurse’s Station where the supervisors store the patient lists and scour the whiteboard for Team One. Mohammed...Drake...Lamont... And then my heart sinks, and the patters quicken into pounding thumps. The name “Dat” leaps from the board and carves itself into the back of my eyelids. Oh, hell no. Images of our newest patient race through my head.


I had met Dat the day before. He sneered in his wheelchair as the supervisors introduced us. I went up to greet him, and he returned my smile with two middle fingers and a slurred, “f*ck you.” The supervisors warned us, especially the women, about Dat. He was the patient to watch out for. He was “grabby” and “vulgar” and “manipulative”, they said, but I had no idea what I was actually in for.


Alright. You can do this. I throw on my cheesiest of smiles and head down the hall to that dreaded patient’s room. Peeking my head in, I hesitate and introduce myself meekly, “Hi, Dat. I’m Morgan. I’m your CNA tonight.”


The mass beneath the covers shuffles around slowly, and two, piercing brown eyes stare directly at me.


“Who are you?” A barely intelligible question escapes from the boy in the bed.


“I’m your CNA. I’m Morgan.”


“Like Cap’n Morgan? Did you brin’ me alcohol?” he mumbles.


I produce a nervous laugh and respond, “No, no, no. I’m just here to take care of you today.” This isn’t so bad. I cautiously walk over towards his bed to get a closer look. “So how are you doing today?”


“Who are you, pre’y lady?” With one quick swipe, his arm emerges and he grabs at my chest. Now I understand where the “grabby” thing came from.


“Uh, no. Watch your hands, Dat. I don’t play games. Now, I need to get you in your wheelchair. Will you help me with that?”


“No. Who are you?” he questions honestly.


“I’m Morgan, Dat...” I sigh. “Here, can you try to sit up for me?”


He manages a shaky maneuver and rolls onto his side, but he doesn’t get much further. I offer a hand to help him into a sitting position, and with great relief, I’m successful.


“Alright. Good. I’m gonna help pull you into your chair now, okay? Are you ready?”


“Ohhh, yes. I’m always rea’y for you,” he replies with a mischievous wink.


I roll my eyes and use all of my strength to try to pull him from his bed to his chair. After a few attempts, I finally gain enough momentum to swing him into the seat. In the meantime, he decides to introduce his hands to whatever parts of my body he can reach. I reprimand him again, but it’s pointless, of course.


“Ca’ I have a kiss?” He smirks at me, finally settled into his chair.


“No, I don’t think so.”


His brow furrows in anger and he throws shaky, random punches in the direction of my face. I dodge them, fortunately, but he manages to deliver a blow to my upper arm.


I jump backwards. “Dat! You can’t hit people like that! We’re here to help you, okay?”


“f*ck you. You’re a f*cking whore.” In a flash, he sticks his hand in his pants and smears the contents of his diaper onto my scrubs. I wrinkle my nose, close my eyes, and pray to that this didn’t just happen. But no, I smell it. It definitely happened.




In a rush, I leave the room and approach CJ, one of the male CNAs working the floor with me tonight. He quickly notices the new embellishment on my sleeve and snickers at me, “You have Dat today?”


“Yeah, so uh... Wanna switch?” I raise my eyebrows desperately.


He laughs louder this time. “Sure, no problem. Don’t feel too special, though. He left me a Mona Lisa on the wall last night.”


“Oh, thanks for that picture.” I grimace, shake my head, and quickly rush down the hallway.


Yup. There is no way I’m working with Dat ever again.


- - -



“So wha’. I still can’ eat without this stu’id tube. I still can’ walk. I can’ do anything.” He wipes a tear from his eye and finally looks at me.


“That’s not what matters, bud. I’m really proud of you, you know, and you should be, too. And guess what?”


“Wha-? Do I get some chicken nuggets now?” We laugh together, both knowing the answer to that question.


“I’ll bet you a lot of money that you’ll get even better.”


“Hmm. Maybe. As long as I get my chicken.” He grins, and I know there’s a little bit of hope left somewhere in that mind of his.


- - -

One year later...


“I was not tha’ bad,” Dat insists as he pushes his walker alongside me. We stroll down the hallway one last time.


“Uh, yeah. You were!” I laugh and give him a playful punch, taking a moment to gleam at the young man beside me.


We reach the end of the hallway and slow to a stop. “Alright, bud. This is it. You got your bag of chicken nuggets?” The corners of my mouth fight against my smile, and tears sting my eyes.


“Yeah, and my Yu-Gi-Oh cards and no diapers!” He pumps a fist in the air.


I step back to gather one last look at my patient. With back erect, eyes alert, and speech nearly flawless, he releases his walker to greet his father and sisters with a hug. My tears pour strongly now, but I hardly notice. I step forward once more and look him in the eye.


“Well, Dat. This is it. You did it. You’re free!”


I pull him in for one last hug and grin a dopey smile.


He shoots me one last salute. “I owe it all to you, Cap’n Morgan.”


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Damn. This got knocked down while all the GTA stuff floated to the top. I'm glad I found this as it's a very relatable thing to me. I critique in two forms, story and form.


Main question out of the way, the time-period shifting flows well, because you relate each time to a relatable line ahead. I like how fluid it all was. I felt bad for Dat, if only for a little while. I grew up caring for my grandmothers until they both passed, and it's a sweet story to be able to see him actually go home, which is the opposite of what I see when it comes to these sorts of stories.


The story is a little dialogue-heavy, and could probably do with some more description, but as it stands for pace and story, I like it. There's not much to say which is a good thing. There's not too much wrong with it, and it leaves me feeling a lot happier knowing this kind of thing can happen in the real world. Not everybody is so privileged. You have an obvious talent. I'd like to see more of it.

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