Get Well Soon! by Kristy Chambers
Published UQP 2012
(Review first published February, 2013)
When I had surgery last year to remove some fibroids from my uterus I developed a new appreciation for nurses. The nurses that took care of me during my four day stay at the RBWH were just the bomb as far as I was concerned – caring, meticulous, friendly and utterly professional. I was so grateful, in fact, that I promised myself I’d buy a card to express my gratitude and send it to the nurses on Ward 6A just as soon as I could walk without feeling like someone was shoving knitting needles into my womb. Regrettably, I never did send that card. I said thank you a lot though, so hopefully they knew I was appreciative of their care and attention. I remember remarking, unoriginally, to one young nurse as she checked my sanitary pad, which was wedged where sanitary pads are supposed to be wedged, that ‘I could never be a nurse’. She smiled and said something to the effect that checking the markings on a sanitary pad was pretty mild on the scale of things nurses are asked to do. I didn’t ask her to elaborate, but I could well imagine.
Well, that’s wasn’t true. I couldn’t well imagine, but thanks to Kristy Chambers’ discomfiting, frank and blackly funny memoir Get Well Soon, I need no longer imagine. Chambers lays bare all the horrors of nursing in squeamish, unrelenting detail – the tampon incident should really come with a reader caution (I dry retched) – but it’s her flat-out honesty about her own failings and humanness that make this memoir such an addictive and enjoyable read.
Chambers is the nurse who ‘could never be a nurse’. She doesn’t pretend to be immune to the fluids, solids and all the other detritus in between the human body is capable of excreting. She finds it just as gross and stomach churning as the rest of us, but boy, the stories she could tell you... And she does tell. Yes, you may come away with some images in your mind you probably wish you could scorch with a blowtorch, but any connoisseur of poo stories will tell you this is top notch material. Plus the rest – imagine an inanimate object, any inanimate object, is it smaller than a chair? Well, Chambers has got an Emergency Room story about that object – vase, carrot, Russian nesting dolls – being stuck up someone’s arse.
But Get Well Soon is not just a litany of the gross and profane. It’s a book about characters – most of the chapter titles are named after patients – or real people, rather, who have left an impression on Chambers for better or for worse. There are the cancer patients who died while Chambers was working in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit – just try sparing your tears when 16-year-old Sarah dies of leukaemia – the addicts and personalities who populate the Detox ward, and then there’s the fucked-up, heart-breaking sadness of the mentally ill who turn up regularly in Emergency. This is humanity at its most wretched, disgusting and sorrowful, but its Chamber’s own humanity and compassion that comes through in the telling, even if she doesn’t spell it out. She doesn’t waste words on sentimentality and her humour is justifiably wry. In essence she’s hugely likeable and if you’re not prudish or too squeamish you’ll love Chambers and her guided tour into nursing land. Every page, however, is a reminder of why I wouldn’t be a nurse for quids. Chambers will tell you though, in her blessedly honest way, that money – a decent income, that is, that comes with a respectable job – was the reason she became a nurse. It wasn’t a calling, she’s not a modern Florence Nightingale, she’s just a regular girl who took up nursing and this what she saw.