"Head Nurses"

By William Peace

After a decade of increasingly severe neurological deficits, I was paralyzed in 1978 at the age of 18. Prior to the widespread development and use of antibiotics, people who had experienced a traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) usually died. But by the time I was paralyzed, thanks to broad-based advances in medical care, men and women with SCI were not merely surviving, but thriving. All of a sudden, healthcare professionals were confronted with a population of paralyzed people such as myself who expected to live a long life post injury.

The job of “rehabilitating” a person fell to physiatrists and other rehabilitation professionals such as physical, occupational, and speech therapists. Even as a young man, I quickly learned that these professionals had no clue what to do. My generation of paralyzed people was essentially a pod of guinea pigs. On the forefront of the creation of modern-day rehabilitation, we all embraced experimentation. A Wild West mentality prevailed: no idea was too crazy, nothing dismissed. The focus was on getting paralyzed people ready for the real world.

At the time, I had few thoughts about the social structure of rehabilitation. A single emotion drove me and most of my peers: fear. What was I going to do with the rest of my life? I had just graduated from high school and all my friends were heading to college. I expected to do the same. I would like to say that my primary reason for going to college was to get a great education. Education was a priority, but as a newly paralyzed man, I had something far more basic in mind. No, not walking—my bulky Everest & Jennings wheelchair was more than enough for me. In fact, I considered that piece of junk a modern marvel. I had something more important in mind: I wanted to have sex. But did my dick still work? Could I still fuck?

Prior to leaving rehabilitation, I was a good patient. I worked hard to learn my “ADLs” —activities of daily living. I accepted without thought that I had to be able to do everything myself. Asking another person to help me was never a consideration—it was a sign of weakness, an anathema. I was brainwashed into an extreme sort of self-sufficiency and independence. Then, the week before I left rehabilitation, I asked the attending neurologist, “Can I have sex?” His reply unnerved me: “I don’t know.” These words reinforced something I could not articulate at the time: I had, in fact, learned virtually nothing from the health care professionals charged with teaching me how to really live with a SCI. The real lessons and practical information—and all of my SCI sexual education—had come from my paralyzed peers.

Part of that included an education about the “bad girls” of rehabilitation. Bad girls were broken up into two distinct and indeed opposite groups: one set formed the “dick police”; the other, the “head nurses.” The dick police had no redeeming value. Early mornings and late afternoons were when they roamed the hallways. When you hear the cart, I was told, hide. The cart was filled with catheters and was pushed by a nurse who was on the lowest rung of nursing seniority. These “bad girls” were young woman and inevitably pretty. Fresh out of nursing school, they had to spend their days teaching people like me how to get a catheter in and out. The first time I held a catheter with a very pretty bad girl deputized as a member of the dick police, I was shocked. You want me to shove that tube up and into my dick? You have got to be kidding me. This was bad enough but my “teacher” was barely older than me. She wanted to demonstrate the correct technique and I was supposed to replicate her efforts. The word humiliating does not begin to cover what I felt.

When the bad girl from the dick police wrapped her hand around the shaft of my penis, my descent into entropy seemed complete. I may have thought I was still the same person I was before I was paralyzed, but when the dick police came around, there was no doubt my life had taken on an Alice in Wonderland type of existence. Pretty young women were searching me out in a way I never dreamed possible. So, like those who had warned me, I learned to avoid the dick police.

But late at night, my roommates told me about the other group of bad girls—the ones I desperately wanted to meet. These bad girls were called “the head nurses.” Initially I thought this was an urban legend if not a bad practical joke. Yet I was told again and again that, at some point during my rehabilitation, a nurse I knew or had never seen would answer the call bell late at night and give me a blowjob. There was no privacy in rehabilitation centers at the time. Rooms usually held four to six men. All that separated me from the other paralyzed guys was a flimsy curtain. We did not even have a television in the room. Just the physical set-up alone made the stories seem like impossible fantasy.

But sure enough, late one night I was awoken by the guttural sounds of deep moaning. I turned to see the silhouette of a young shapely woman giving my roommate a world-class blowjob. I remember this night with crystal clarity because it was the first time since being paralyzed I got an erection. My dick was alive! Who needs a doctor when you have a head nurse!

A week or two later, I received my own visit. It started out badly. It was late at night and I had pissed all over myself and the bed. I hit the call button, upset. I thought I had had a handle on bladder management at that point. The nurse that came to help was one with whom I was very close. She changed my sheets and came back as I was washing myself. I was playing with myself without much luck. She explained I had to be a bit more vigorous and try non-traditional approaches. Then she rubbed my leg and pulled the skin on my inner groin, and sure enough I grew hard. I started to cry in relief. She wiped away my tears and then went down on me. She brought me to orgasm, and I was taken aback when I realized no ejaculate had emerged. She explained to me that this is common for paralyzed men and that it involves a retrograde ejaculation. She assured me it would not affect my fertility or my sex life in a major way. My son is living proof she was correct.

That night forged a lifelong friendship with this woman, one that lasted until her death two years ago. Once in a blue moon, she or I made reference to that night, the night she reaffirmed my manhood and masculinity in a way I will forever appreciate.

Newly minted crippled men inform me that “head nurses” no longer exist. In fact, when I tell this story about two sorts of “bad girls” I encountered in rehabilitation circa 1978, most people do not believe me. I am accused of telling fish tales.

Obviously my experiences constitute a lost part of medical history—lost perhaps because people are too uncomfortable with it. The fact was that rehabilitation stays at the time were long and intense, physically and emotionally. The medical professionals that did the hard work were almost all young attractive women, not much older than myself; the patients were almost exclusively young men. The occupational and physical therapists and the nurses touched our bodies in intimate ways on a daily basis. They held us when we cried. To relieve the pressure we felt, much sexual innuendo and many sexually provocative jokes were exchanged. Drugs, prescribed and recreational, were shared and consumed. Sexual relations happened between patients and staff. Some married.

Truth be told, I could tell many stories that would be far more objectionable to most people than my “head nurse” experience. But what is etched in my mind some thirty-five years later is the compassion that woman showed me—the compassion so many of these women showed us young men. This woman was able to provide me a level of care and a connection that no longer exists. I should note that not all men received such a visit; this was not a standard part of nursing care. Married, older men, and those who did not work exceptionally hard to become independent never got a visit from a “head nurse.” Such visits were reserved for men such as myself. I was young, naïve, sexually inexperienced, polite, driven to succeed, and was in need of basic knowledge that was not forthcoming. Into this void the nurse injected a compassionate eroticism that made me a better man, one capable and prepared to function in a hostile post-SCI world. This was, after all, a time when there was no such thing as disability rights or disability studies. The ADA did not yet exist.

Part of me longs for the old days for newly crippled men. It’s true that rehabilitation thirty years ago was primitive. Many people who failed to progress or displayed too much anger or clinical depression were quietly sent to another facility. I now shudder and wonder what happened to these lost souls. But it was more typical to spend months in a rehabilitation facility where life-long friendships were forged. I knew a few quadriplegics that spent over a year at a rehabilitation facility. Today—forget extended rehabilitation experiences. Newly paralyzed people are shipped out within weeks and so are in my estimation set up to fail. Rehabilitation facilities are often quite nice and located in rural areas. But they now serve as short-term bubbles of social understanding. Worse yet, much time is wasted discussing a cure to SCI and less time is spent on practical matters for a post-injury life. Obviously a cure is an admirable hope, but a desire for cure is much less important than the sort of kindness a “bad girl” such as a “head nurse” can offer a paralyzed man who is wondering about the present and future of his sexuality.

I am not suggesting we return to our primitive past. Advances in rehabilitation and social progress have revolutionized the lives of many persons who suddenly find themselves paralyzed. But I will never forget the “bad girls” who gave me quite an educational experience—who gave me myself.

William J. Peace, PhD, is the 2014 Jeannette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Syracuse University. His book Evolution and Revolution is the definitive biography of Leslie A. White. Peace has also published in a host of peer-reviewed journals such as The American Anthropologist, Journal of Anthropological Research, and The Hastings Center Report. Peace is also on the Board of Directors of the grass roots disability rights organization Not Dead Yet. His research interests include bioethics, disability studies, body art and modification, and the history of anthropology.

Issue 12 cover

Originally appeared in Atrium Issue 12: Bad Girls (Winter 2014)

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