The Taste & Smell of Cancer
"It tastes like metallic." That's how my father described the taste in his mouth, the first hint that told him he had cancer. No matter how hard he brushed his tongue the taste could not be chiseled away. He tried hard candies, gum, and continued lighting up cigarette after cigarette with hopes of obliterating the taste. It's odd, artificial flavors and carcinogenic filled tobacco, the very things that could trigger cancer, could not overrule its taste. He said it was as if he always had a piece of foil in his mouth.
My father tasted his cancer. I smelled it on another, once. A nurse asked me to assist her insert a urinary catheter on a woman that had a vaginal tumor. She needed an extra set of hands to lift the mass and an extra set of eyes to visual the opening of the urethra. I was not prepared for the smell.
My cousin, also a nurse, had once given me a tip: Chew up a wad of spearmint gum, stick it over your upper lip, put on a hospital mask, and breathe in the scent of gum during the high-probability-of-gagging task. Again, I was not prepped. Pungent was only one flavor of this multi-layered scent. I could smell the cancer, rooted deep within, that it was living, breeding, and decomposing her inside out.
Gimme Something Tasty
The hospital I work for has a radio ad that states "We believe in organic food. We believe in fresh local produce." I'm here to say they may believe in it, but they don't practice it. The food served to patients is prepped in another city, packaged in a black plastic tray covered with a heat sealed transparent film, and transported ninety miles across a polluted highway. The meal is then zapped with radiation in an industrial microwave. And voilà, breakfast, lunch, and dinner is served! The hot, black plastic tray is presented to the patient, so they can get their daily "nutrients". Most patients complain that the food is atrocious.
The good-tasting treats in our pantry are: graham crackers, jello, pudding, popsicles and boxed juices. They are filled with sugar and contain no nutrient value, which is needed to heal wounds, the common cold, and a deteriorating patient. I once suggested we serve yogurt with natural probiotics and to do away with the pharmaceutically packaged crunchy probiotics - which is sprinkled on food that won't be eaten. The answer was no. It's cheaper to stock junk than yogurt, which is expensive and has a short shelf-life.
After assisting the nurse with the patient who had vaginal cancer, I came out of the room gagging. My eyes watered and I needed to eliminate the memory of this smell. Since taste and smell are inextricably linked, I ran to the pantry and grabbed a zero-nutrient, chocolate pudding and downed it. It worked. I stand corrected, those snacks do provide some remedy!
Must it Smell like a Hospital?
Nurses become connoisseur of scents that only they can correctly identify as the patient rolls up on a gurney: ketones, lower gastrointestinal bleeds, continuos bladder irrigations, a rotting liver, a yeast infection hiding under a panniculus, or pannus (abdominal folds), and clostridium difficile. All those involuntarily nostril-flaring smells commingle like offensive ghosts in our hallway.
We once had peppermint oil that we could pour into medicine cups and place strategically in rooms. But each vial was so expensive that now a few vials are sacredly held in management's office. If nice smelling essential oil is a luxury, then foul smelling hospitals are torture. Most times, nurses are able to endure the overwhelming odors of illness, but why must we make guests and other patients suffer along?
The Smell of Honor
I recently told a friend that I was tired of coming home smelling like poop. That comment made me think about my Uncle Victor who worked for The City of Stockton. He would refer to it as the "shit place," and he meant it in the most sincerest of ways.
Every morning he donned his rubber boots, made trips to various streams and to a network of sewer systems where "every flushed toilet in Stockton goes."
"I see everybody's poop," he added.
He grabbed beakers and vials, filled them with samples of stream water and collected waste. The collections were then tested for harmful bacterias. The results would tell him whether the city's water was potable or a risk.
I imagined him looking like a coal miner, wearing a hard hat with a big light mounted to its forehead, as he made his way underground to water waste passageways that had mounds of toilet paper and turds floating past him like driftwood in a stream. I have no idea how the water treatment system actually is, but at age thirteen this is how I constructed it in my head. My uncle's embellishments only added to my imagination.
"I saw your poop the other day," he joked.
Aside from his great story telling, what I remember most was how much pride he had in handling human waste and being part of the team that protected the city from bad water consumption.
"I work alongside chemist! Me, a man from Mexico with no education, working alongside some of the smartest men I've ever met. They are the ones that balance out the water if it's not good. They know so many chemical formulas!"
By the time he left the septic areas, a normal day at the office, he reeked of digested restaurant and home cooked meals from every zip code in Stockton. He beamed and felt like a man of service. He wore the aroma as a Smell of Honor that represented his hard day's work and contribution to our community. Like a wrestler, after a winning match, not caring how smelly he may be, my uncle didn't care if he left a vapor trail throughout his house.
I desperately wish to feel that proud. But to be honest, I rush home to lather my hair with Herbal Essence shampoo infused with coconut fragrance. I scrub my body with Dial to free it of any remnants of my laborious night. I need to work harder at having my Uncle's perception.
Like him, I too, work among great science minds: doctors, pharmacists, and nurses. I too, grab a plastic cup and fill it with excrement or urine and send it off to the lab for analysis. I too, then treat the patient with antibiotics, all the while cleaning their excoriated butts until they are healed.
We nurses do what people in marriage vows promise to do in sickness and in health. Nurses fulfill the in sickness part of the vow. I understand it's a dirty job that nobody wants to do. I also understand it's my job. And for those that need it, I don't mind doing it. It's the twenty-eight year old who can move her hands to text and comb her hair that I resent, while my and my co-workers aching back bends over because she likes, or feels entitled to, a good butt cleaning. But that's another story for another day. Like my Uncle Victor, I need to view (or smell) that scent as an earned cloak. I need to be proud of what I do for complete strangers.
"Instead of saying, Geez, I smell like poop I should be saying, Take a whiff of me! That, my friend, is the smell of hard work and having helped someone tonight." I'm working on it.
I'm lucky I don't have a metallic taste in my mouth. I don't have a decreased appetite. Matter of fact, the same hands that wiped up every human output, will be washed and used to eat finger-food that my co-workers brought in. I serve myself a cup of coffee and give it a swirl under my forgiving nose.
Ah, it's just another average night on the job.