A few years ago, I was walking along the cancer ward of D.C. General Hospital to visit an uncle when I heard laughter coming from his room.
It was a nurse's laugh. She and my uncle had been arguing, and when I entered the room he was smiling, which was rare for him because he knew he was dying.
He had told the nurse that he did not want to be hooked up to the dialysis machine anymore, and he didn't want any more blood transfusions, either. He did not want to be bothered, he had said. But the nurse had said to hell with him, she was going to keep him alive whether he liked it or not.
My uncle liked that a lot. You see, he had been in several area hospitals before settling into D.C. General, but none of them had what D.C. General had: a lot of nurses with whom he could argue, flirt, curse, cry, and not feel, as he had with nurses during a brief stay at another hospital in the city, that he was going to be kicked out if he kept acting up.
Until those days, I never thought I'd have a friend or family member holed up in D.C. General. That was the city's public hospital for "poor people," and you just expected the worst.
Over the years, however, after many visits to the bedsides of people I never thought would spend time at D.C. General, including people whose health insurance had run out or been canceled or folk who just happened to get injured on the near-Southeast side of town, I have come to look at the nurses in a special way. I see them as separate from the hospital, which still gives me the willies.
Those men and women are just too important to be treated like candy stripers.
The issue for them is money. After seven months of contract negotiations, the hospital management is holding fast in its refusal to grant a sizable pay raise. The average annual pay for a registered nurse at D.C. General is $26,000; at the Washington Hospital Center it is $30,000.
The state of panic, frustration and fear that many patients bring to the hospital requires special consoling, treatment and understanding. If some nurses do break down and burn out, it is not without cause. But most of them manage to do their job superbly.
As winter draws near, more elderly people and homeless people will be going to D.C. General. At the same time, the 75 to 100 registered nursing vacancies at the hospital are causing chaos. Last Friday, for example, the hospital was forced to close part of its emergency room to new patients because of a personnel shortage.
In a most unusual twist, hospital officials claimed that the way to solve the nurse shortage, and therefore prevent further closures, was to modify the D.C. residency requirement to exempt nurses from having to live in the city.
Ironically, one of the things my uncle liked most about the nurses who cared for him was that they did live in the city and could talk to him about things that happened here. And make no mistake about it, the fact that most of them were black made him feel a bit more at home.
But, again, the issue here is not where nurses live. It's how much money they make. Why would a nurse who lives in the suburbs want to work at D.C. General if she could make more money at, say, Howard University Hospital?
As the situation continues to deteriorate at D.C. General, it will no doubt become obvious that what is bad treatment of nurses will become even worse treatment for city residents.
"Nurses don't want to shortchange any patient, but we are woefully understaffed," said Beverly Freeman-Owen, president of the District of Columbia Nurses Association.
Freeman-Owen poses a good question: "Who cares?" The answer became obvious to me through the treatment my uncle received at D.C. General: Nurses care. And for that they should be adequately paid.