Thursday, October 14, 2010

Nurse William's Not-So-Excellent Desert Adventure

After more than eight years of employment at a busy hospital in the Seattle area, I felt it was time for a change. I had considered travel nursing in the past, but either the timing was not right or the opportunity was not there. I wanted to learn different approaches to emergency nursing and see new sights. And I wanted to make more money doing it. My household was knee-deep in debt and the extra money made by traveling was going to help us reach solvency. Once we got to that point, I would look for a permanent job again.

Once I made my decision, it was simply a matter of choosing an agency and waiting for the job to come to me.

And waiting… and waiting.

I finally got a call from an agency about an immediate opening at a hospital serving a large Native American population in Arizona. The hospital, I was told, had a “Level 2” trauma designation and saw a lot of “interesting” cases since it was the only “major” hospital in the region. I was told that the hospital was brand-new, was “state of the art,” and was very “traveler-friendly.” And, of course, I would be making more money. The only hitch was that the start date was less than two weeks out, and I was still employed at my permanent hospital. I would have to quit with less than two weeks’ notice, which meant I would forfeit about 800 dollars in vacation pay.

I took a leap of faith, accepted the offer, and gave my notice.

Two days after I finished my final shift (topped off with a goodbye party that genuinely moved me to tears), I packed up my faithful Ford Mustang named Baby-San and drove down to northeast Arizona- wondering all the while if I was embarking on a new adventure or making one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I had traveled around the world years before when I was a merchant seaman, and was no stranger to traveling light. But never before had I laid so much on the line. There were no permanent nursing jobs to come back to in Seattle. I was seriously stepping out in faith that I had made the right decision (this after much prayer). But as I drove through Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona, a biblical proverb kept pecking at my mind like a bird on the windowpane:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end leads only to death…”

…Which, needless to say, had a rather dampening effect on any excitement I might have otherwise entertained.

Three days after leaving the crisp, green scenery of the Northwest, I arrived at my housing on the Indian Reservation. The scenery was impressive, with rock formations jutting from the ground as if the Almighty had simply planted them there like 200-foot-tall brick-red croquet spikes. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the air was clear and sharp. But that’s as far as my positive impression went.

Garbage was strewn everywhere. Weather-beaten junk cars dotted the landscape. It was understandable for a high-desert location to be dusty and grungy; But this place was just filthy. The houses were dilapidated, and the trailer homes were in a far worse condition. Scruffy and emaciated stray dogs wandered everywhere. The grotesquely bloated carcass of a cow that had been dead for at least a couple of days lay on the side of the road in the middle of town, its legs rigidly jutting parallel to the ground. (If the inhabitants claim to be "grooms of the earth," it was a wonder they were not incarcerated for spousal abuse.) The living environment appeared as unwholesome as any third-world country that I have ever visited. And the first thought that came to my head was one of dismay: “My tax dollars are paying for people to live like this!?”

(Ironically, the first sign I saw when I pulled into town said “Paid for by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” Well, holy crap. At least now I know a little more clearly the extent to which I was robbed.)

After driving down another ten miles of crappy road paid for by us unwitting victims, I picked up my house keys and garage door opener from the housing manager and drove along the rows of identical, stuccoed, red aluminum-roofed houses to the cracker box that bore my number. If it was not for the occasional parked car or moving van, I would have guessed the community was abandoned. Not a soul was in sight. I pulled into my driveway, opened the garage door, and began hauling my stuff upstairs to my room.

In the hallway, I ran into one of my housemates. I introduced myself informally. He, in turn, replied that his name was DOCTOR so-and-so. He ignored my cordially outstretched hand.

Well, screw you and the magic carpet you rode in on, doc, I thought as I dragged my gear into my room and unpacked. As I stepped out of the room, I ran into my other housemate. Taking the chance, I offered my hand and introduced myself. My new friend eagerly shook my hand, introduced himself as Jack, and began to tell me about some of the nicer points of the area. He was a genuinely nice fellow (with whom I remain in contact). I asked him if there was any place nearby where I could pick up some bedding and other sundries- and maybe have a beer, too.

“Oh, there’s a Wal-Mart that’s about forty miles away from here.”

“How about a place where I can watch some baseball and have a beer?”

“You’ll have to go about forty miles for that, too. This is a ‘dry’ reservation. No alcohol is allowed. (My friend declared this between sips of scotch and water.) If you get caught bringing alcohol onto the res, the cops will confiscate it and give you a ticket.”

“Well, at least now I know why there are so many drunken driving fatalities around here.”

“Oh, it’s worse on the reservation. The natives still bring alcohol in, even though it’s illegal. The cops just give the natives a wink and let them pass. Hell, they’ll probably be partying with them after work. You’ll see a lot of alcohol-related stuff in the ER.”

“Peachy,” I responded with a weary roll of the eyes.

Jack changed the subject: “But if you like exploring and sightseeing, there’s a ton of stuff here. You have Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde- all kinds of stuff.”

My mind filled with images of John Wayne riding among the monoliths. “I would love to see Monument Valley. Is it close?”

“Well, it’s about four hours away on a bunch of back roads that might not suit your Mustang. Come to think of it, there isn’t a lot around here that your car would tolerate, because the roads are pretty bad.”

So much for John Wayne and monoliths.

“I guess I’ll stick to what I can get to, then. Is there anything close that I could get to in my car?”

“No, not really…” Jack answered with his eyes averted.

“Jack, just tell me straight. I’m in the middle of frigging nowhere for three months, huh?”

Jack pursed his lips and nodded slowly. “That sums it up.”

“Got any more scotch?”