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Caring nurse can be the best medicine to ease our fears and doubts

From where I sit

By Rebecca Faye Smith Galli, rgalli@comcast.net

3:26 PM EDT, August 8, 2011

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"We're No. 1 in the nation," the nurse stated, pausing for emphasis.

"And," she added, "We have a 99 percent healing rate."

Her smile met my anxious eyes as she stood up to finish.

"You are going to be fine," she assured me.

I exhaled and looked at her. You could tell she knew what she was doing, clicking through the unimportant paperwork and zeroing in on the questions that mattered.

When she finished, I asked her how long she had worked there, something I often do when receiving medical care. Some tell me their career history; others, only the number of years or months on the job. I then ask if they like their work and, again, I get a range of responses — some revealing, others only a sound bite.

It's always a plus if the caregiver is experienced and happy in what they do, I've learned, especially if what they do will be affecting my health in the immediate future.

This time, I found myself in a place I never hoped to visit — the Greater Baltimore Medical Center's Wound Care Center. After 14 years of paralysis, I made a mistake I feared with all my being — I hurt myself during a transfer, and it had become a wound.

I transfer every day, at least a dozen times. As a paraplegic, I scoot myself forward in my wheelchair, put one hand on the target seat and another under my hip. I lift up, push over and swing my body from one surface to the other.

I have transferred from the wheelchair to the bed, to the car, to bathroom chairs, to airline seats, to dentist chairs and examination tables regularly and flawlessly for 14 years.

Until a few weeks ago. Evidently, I lifted up, but not far enough, and suffered a skin abrasion. I didn't feel it, so it went unnoticed until I realized my left leg was spasming more than normal. A thorough skin check revealed an injury that was now a small wound.

I couldn't feel it, see it or care for it since it was under my leg, where I put pressure every time I sit. That combination can be disastrous for healing — even deadly.

They warned us about wounds in the rehabilitation program, where I spent six weeks learning how to manage my body and live my life without the use of my legs.

"Your skin is the largest organ in the body," they informed us. "And now, you cannot feel or move a large part of that organ."

Those paralyzed don't "fidget," we learned. We have to consciously move to prevent skin breakdown. They taught us "pressure relief" exercises to relieve the constant pressure from sitting.

Then the slide show began of horrific wounds that began as skin breakdown. I vowed never to let this happen to me.

Although my wound was not from pressure, the injury takes the same path. Without treatment, it will not heal.

I was terrified. And this nurse knew it.

But with 13 years of experience, this savvy woman who loved her job addressed my fears, one by one. Although she may have overstated her facts, her confidence was contagious, calming me enough to listen to the doctor's plan. They measured the wound, photographed it and prescribed a detailed wound management program.

"Call any time," she told me.

I have and still do. Healing can take weeks or even months, I've learned. So I am vigilant, patient but most of all grateful for the good care I receive — so necessary for keeping focused and moving forward.

GBMC (Greater Baltimore Medical Center), one of the oldest and largest wound care centers in the United States, recently celebrated its 20th year. Patients and/or referring physicians can contact the GBMC Wound Care Center by calling 443-849-6212, or go to http://www.gbmc.org/woundcare.

In 1997, Rebecca Galli was paralyzed by Transverse Myelitis, a rare inflammation of the spinal cord that began as the flu. Contact her at rgalli@comcast.net or go to http://www.rebeccafayesmithgalli.com.