Thursday, November 16, 2006

Abscess Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

"How did this happen to your arm?" I asked as I removed the bandage from his forearm.

"Oh, I was doing something and I slipped and cut it." His eyes darted around the room as he muttered his answer.

The hole in his arm is almost perfectly round, about 4 cm across and maybe 1 cm deep. It's granulating nicely, the edges clean. I dab on some Silvadene with a sterile tongue depressor after first cleansing the wound with sterile water. I cover it with 2 x 2 gauze sponges and wrap it nicely. I wish him well and head back to the pod to confer with the doc. The visiting nurses will watch it closely for signs of infection.

"Don't tell me," I say, "an abscess from poor technique while shooting up, right?"

"Of course," the doctor says. "What else?"

It could pass as a large cigarette burn, but it's too deep. He was hospitalized for acute heroin intoxication (just shy of an overdose), plus a forearm abscess which had to be excavated by the surgeon. Not his first abscess, plus a little bacteremia for good measure. Poor guy.

When I was a Baccalaureate nursing student, we had to do a community health project. Due to my persistence, my small group chose a inner-city drop-in center for IV drug users. We had health fairs and taught them proper technique for shooting up and how to clean needles with bleach solution. Our venue for learning was not a popular choice among the faculty, but if we could prevent a few infections along the way and befriend some addicts, wasn't a little harm reduction OK? We hung out with prostitutes, passed out condoms, and distributed bleach kits in "shooting galleries" around the city. It was quite an eye-opener for some of my suburban classmates.

Oh, the things people will do to their bodies for pleasure, for forgetfulness, for escape from pain. Memories of trauma fade away as the heroin courses through the veins or the effects of the crack go straight to the brain. To sleep, perchance to dream. It can feel so good but only lasts so long. And the abscesses and infections and cellulitis? Call them occupational hazards.

Compassion goes a long way, and if the abscess makes the nurse's heart grow harder, time for a vacation, or perhaps a new career.
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