Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  April 2016 | issue 484

A Healing Touch

by Mary Jane Nealon

Mary Jane Nealon’s memoir Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life won the Bakeless Nonfiction Prize. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her rescue dogs, Maisie and Cooper.

There are some things I take for granted: that when my car is serviced, the air in my tires will be checked; that when I buy free-range chicken, the bird was running happily in the grass right up to the moment the ax fell; and that when I go to my doctor with excruciating abdominal pain, she will, without prompting, examine my abdomen.

When I first noticed my pain three weeks ago, I immediately thought of a friend — well, an estranged friend; his wife and I had had one of those arguments you can’t take back — who’d posted on Facebook that he had abdominal pain and would probably need gallbladder surgery. Two and a half months later he was dead from an aggressive cancer. He was young — much younger than I am. And I knew it couldn’t be my gallbladder, because I’d had it removed in 2004. So after I felt a pain in my abdomen, I went back and read my estranged friend’s Facebook post. Was it the same pain? Should I make an appointment with my doctor? Who would take care of my dogs if I died? Would I ever see the ocean again?


Dr. Demarco first came to see my grandmother Kitty in 1957, when I was just one year old, because she was having an anxiety attack. Earlier in the day a thief had come down the fire escape from the roof and taken some cash from the dresser in Kitty’s bedroom, where she’d been resting at the time. Kitty, who’d had a stroke months earlier, couldn’t call out or move, and the brazen crook had looked right at her before leaving the way he’d come in. By the time Kitty was able to communicate to anyone what had happened, she was exhausted and hyperventilating. Dr. Demarco came and sat on the edge of her bed, held her hand, and told her everything would be OK.

The other women in my family — my mother, my aunt Frances, and my great-aunt Anne — all swooned over the doctor’s good looks and his meticulous suit and his shiny black hair, slicked back and smelling of Brylcreem.


In the mid-nineties I was working in Bowery flophouses as a nurse, and I treated a man named Frank with a huge tumor in his throat. The right side of his neck bulged and pulsed. I used to crush his pain pills into powder so he could swallow them. He would help me put the doses into origami-like paper triangles to keep the powder from falling out. Before I left, I would get him some tap water so he could take a dose. His eyes would lock on to mine as he swallowed the powder with the water, as if to say, I may choke. Please help me if I choke. I would nod my head reassuringly and put my hand on his tumor. Then he would put his hand over mine, and we would both hold on to the tumor, which was sometimes hot from all the cellular activity and other times clammy. He would nod slowly back at me as he swallowed.

Frank. Sometimes I just like to say his name out loud. Frank.


Before I was born, my mother had identical twin girls. Dr. Demarco delivered them. One was three pounds three ounces, and the other was an even four pounds. Their lungs were underdeveloped, and they lived only a few days. My father took them to the cemetery in two little white coffins, accompanied by a parade of his fellow policemen, while my mother was still in the hospital. I knew about my sisters growing up, but I didn’t know where they were buried until I was thirteen, and we went to put Christmas wreaths on the family graves in Holy Name Cemetery. “You have a couple of sisters over there,” my father said.

My parents believed Dr. Demarco had saved the babies’ souls by acting quickly to have them baptized in the hospital nursery. “He rescued them from the Limbo of the Infants,” my mother said once, “and for that we can never thank him enough.” Limbo: the edge of hell where all babies went who still carried the stain of original sin. Limbo: a place where the souls of infants flew around without mothers and fathers.


I saw my doctor four times for the pain in my stomach. As a nurse, I often try to summarize my symptoms in a way that will lead the doctor to the conclusion I am hoping for. I used to employ a similar strategy in therapy: if I keep talking about my father, no one will ask about my mother.

On the first couple of doctor visits I minimized the abdominal pain and mentioned remedies I’d tried that seemed to be helping: taking Tums at night and Prilosec before meals; avoiding acidic foods like tomato sauce. During each visit the doctor stared at her laptop screen, nodded, and asked how my weight loss was going. “Terrible, but maybe that’s good, because if I had stomach cancer . . .” But she was too busy looking something up on a website to hear me. She worked in the same clinic that I did. She’d gone to Harvard. Everyone loved her. I had to trust her, right?

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