Jenny took a deep breath before she entered the building. It had been a rough day at work, and she almost called in sick. But she knew that the local suicide helpline had very few workers, and lives probably depended on her showing up to volunteer that afternoon.
“Hey Jenny!” Carol waved as Jenny nodded and took her seat at the switchboard. It wasn’t easy to work as a nurse’s aide–she got all the (literally) dirty jobs, like taking care of patients’ wounds and excretions–but it was way worse that she had to work with someone like Andrea, the nurse who was in charge of her.
Andrea was mean spirited, bossy, and delighted in making Jenny’s life a living hell. If not for her love for her patients themselves, Jenny would have quit long ago.
Today, for instance, Andrea had not only assigned her the most difficult patients, she had also ridiculed her in front of the other nurses when she’d accidentally spilled a bedpan in the corridor–it was actually Andrea’s fault, she had bumped into Jenny while Jenny was working, but, true to form, she loudly blamed the entire incident on Jenny.
And that was not the first time, either. Andrea seemed to have it in for Jenny. Despite Jenny’s love for helping her patients, she was seriously considering leaving the hospital and finding work elsewhere. Enough was enough.
“Hey Jenny, call on line 2,” Carol said.
“Thanks, Carol.” Jenny shook her head to clear it. Then she pressed the button and picked up the receiver. “Hello?” she said.
The woman on the other end spoke with a wavering voice that sounded somehow familiar. “Hello? Is this the suicide hotline?”
“Yes it is,” Jenny said, using her warm, kind voice. “Thank you for reaching out. How can I help you?”
“Well,” the person on the other end sniffed. “To be honest, I don’t really know if I want to die. I just…want someone to talk to.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Jenny said. “I’m willing to listen to anything you want to say.”
The familiar-sounding voice on the other end sighed. “I feel like a horrible loser.”
“How so?” Jenny asked.
“Well, no one loves me. My parents have never said anything good about me, my husband left me, my kids hate me, my coworkers all think I’m a b***, and I don’t blame them.
“Take today, for example. At work, I accidentally bumped into one of the aides that I work with, and she spilled the bedpan she was holding. I was so embarrassed! And so I started screaming at her, and everyone heard, and I am sure they were all thinking that I was a monster. And I am.”
Jenny reeled back in shock as the puzzle pieces clicked into place. Now she knew why the person’s voice sounded so familiar. Could it be…Andrea? Jenny could hardly believe it, but it couldn’t be anyone else.
It was too late to give the phone to someone else.
“What is your name?” Andrea was saying into the phone.
“Umm…my name is Jenny,” Jenny answered.
“That’s the name of the aide I was telling you about,” Andrea said. Luckily for Jenny, she didn’t seem to make the connection. “I feel horrible about what I did to her. And what I always do to her and the others, but I don’t know why, I just get so furious! Especially at that Jenny!”
“I see,” Jenny asked. And then, because she really wanted to know, “Why do you think you get so mad at Jenny?”
Andrea sighed. “I suppose I am jealous of her.” she said. Jenny blinked in surprise. “She is still so young and fresh and pretty. The patients and the other nurses and aides love her. She doesn’t have a nasty ex-husband or evil parents or disobedient children driving her crazy. She is all sunshine and flowers and happiness, and when I look at her, I just get mad. And then I do mean things to her, and that makes me feel worse.”
“Perhaps Jenny has struggles that you are not aware of?” Jenny said, trying to control her voice.
“Maybe,” Andrea admitted. “I know everyone faces difficulties in life. But mine are so much worse than hers. I don’t know why she gets a break in life and I don’t! I feel like I should just kill myself and get it over with. No one would miss me. My family doesn’t care, and I would just get replaced at work. My coworkers would probably celebrate.”
Just listen, Jenny reminded herself, recalling her training. Just listen.
“Why do you think that?” Jenny asked.
“My coworkers hate me because I’m short-tempered and bossy and mean.”
“Do any of them ever act short-tempered or bossy or mean?”
“Well, I suppose, sometimes. Yeah, occasionally Daisy snaps at the other nurses.”
“Do you suppose everyone hates her?”
“No, Daisy is really good at what she does, and she lends a helping hand at times.”
“Do you ever do things for the others?”
“Not really…well, occasionally I fill in for one or two of them when they have emergencies. It’s not like my family cares if I’m home anyway. And last month when Elsa’s mother got into a horrible car accident and the nurses started a collection to help her foot the bill, I donated a couple hundred bucks. I know what it’s like to be in a car accident. After my husband left me, I drove drunk and ran into a pole. Took me ages to recover. Not that anyone really noticed. My parents were just upset that I wasn’t giving them as much money as I usually do, during those few months I was in the hospital.”
Jenny nearly started. She had no idea that Andrea had donated so much to Elsa’s mother’s fund, or that she had been in a car accident. It must have happened before Jenny started her job at the hospital.
“Do you think they appreciate you when you do that?”
“I guess so. No one knows about the donation, though.”
“It sounds like you do a lot of good things for others behind the scenes. You support your coworkers and your parents, even though it sounds like you have children of your own to support.”
There was silence, and then Andrea gave a soft sob. “I guess, yeah. But it’s not enough.”
“Not enough for what?” Jenny asked, genuinely curious.
“Not enough for me to be alive.”
“Why do you say that?” Jenny asked.
Andrea sniffed. “When I was a little girl, my big brother died to save me. We were at the beach, and I couldn’t swim. I accidentally got too close to the water, and a big wave swept me in. He jumped in to get me, but somehow, he ended up getting caught in an undertow and the life guards were only able to get me out.
“My parents were devastated. They kept blaming me for his death. He was the favorite child. And I knew that he had sacrificed himself so that I could live…but look at what I am doing with my life! It’s not enough! It’s not worth his sacrifice! I should just end it so I can go be with him. He was the only one who ever really loved me.” Andrea’s voice broke and she dissolved into sobs as she said the last sentence.
Jenny felt her own eyes water. She struggled to keep her composure.
“Do you think perhaps your brother’s sacrifice is all the more reason to keep living? So you can take the love he gave you and give it to others?” she said quietly.
“I guess,” Andrea sniffled. “Yeah, I know you’re right. But sometimes it’s really hard to keep going, you know?”
“I know,” Jenny said. And she couldn’t say anything else for a few moments.
“What should I do?” Andrea said in a small voice.
“Well, I only have suggestions,” Jenny said, surreptitiously wiping a tear from her face. “But maybe you could think about what your brother would have wanted for you. Obviously he valued your life. I don’t think he would have wanted you to think you owe him for his sacrifice. I think he would have wanted you to have a full, happy life.”
“Yeah,” Andrea said with another sniffle. “Maybe you’re right.”
“And also, maybe try reaching out to some other people, there may be some folks out there who might also understand a little of what you are going through. And then you will see you are not alone.”
Andrea was quiet, and for a moment, Jenny was afraid she had crossed a line. She wasn’t supposed to give so much advice, was she?
But then Andrea said quietly, “You’re right. Thank you for listening. I’m going to try to think of what you said.”
“You’re welcome,” Jenny said. “I am very glad we’ve had the chance to talk.” And she was, too.
The next day at work, Jenny noticed that Andrea looked a little pensive, and not like her usual bossy self.
“New patient assignments are on the board,” Andrea said at the start of the shift. “Jenny, you have room 215, LVAD. Courtney, heart transplant, room 212. Mina–”
Jenny raised her hand. “Excuse me, would it be alright if I switched with Courtney?”
Andrea shot her a suspicious look. “Why?”
“I like to work with transplant patients,” Jenny said.
Andrea opened her mouth to speak, and Jenny could tell she was about to say no, but then Courtney spoke up. “That’s fine with me. I’m okay with the switch.”
It still looked like Andrea was about to say no, but then she suddenly sighed. “Alright, fine,” she said, erasing the numbers on the board and switching them. Then she finished reading the others’ assignments. “Now, get to work!”
Later, during her coffee break, Jenny sought Andrea out. She found the nurse standing in the break room, holding a mug. Her eyes were closed.
Andrea’s eyes snapped open. “What is it?” she said, somewhat irritably.
“I just wanted to say thank you for letting me switch with Courtney today,” Jenny said.
Before Andrea could say anything else, Jenny continued: “You probably don’t know, but I am a heart transplant recipient too. I was born with a congenital heart defect that grew worse when I got older. I was put on a list, but I was quickly running out of time. I had an older sister–Lina,” saying her name made Jenny’s throat squeeze, but she pressed on, “who used to hate to see me suffering. She always said she wanted to give me her heart, but of course that was impossible.
“But one day, Lina got in a terrible car accident, and…she died. I don’t know how they made it work, but the doctors found out she was my sister, I was on the transplant list, we had the same blood types and everything, and they gave me her heart.
“At first I felt so guilty, I felt like I had caused Lina’s accident by being sick. But my parents told me that it wasn’t my fault. That Lina would have been so happy that I was able to live. And eventually, I realized that they were right. I know my big sister would be happy to see me here now, helping patients, living an ordinary life, working with and learning from you.”
Jenny choked up, even though she had told herself not to.
She looked up through her teary eyes to see that Andrea also appeared to be tearing up–or was that just the light, playing tricks on her?
“So…thank you for letting me switch with Courtney,” Jenny said. “It means a lot to me.”
Andrea nodded, and then she did something she never did before–she held out her right hand. Jenny reached out her hand, too, and grasped Andrea’s.
Something wordless passed between them. And then they let go. Jenny smiled at Andrea through her tears, and, after a moment, Andrea smiled too.