The idea for Nell and Lady came to me as I stood at the same window on the sixth floor of the medical center in Charleston where Lady waits for Nell in the opening scene of the book. I’ve spent a lot of time at that wall of windows recently, looking out over the boats in Charleston Harbor. In a span of fourteen months, my mother had four abdominal surgeries to treat complications related to diverticulitis scar tissue. By the grace of God and a talented surgeon’s hands, my mother is now in the best health any eighty-six-year-old woman could hope for.

Mom spent a week, on average, in the hospital after each surgery, and I was at her side every single day. The lessons I learned about strength of character and compassion for others from the patients, families, and nurses on Six West compelled me to write this novel. Recovering from abdominal surgery is painful, undignified, and excruciatingly slow. As a family member, you do whatever it takes to see your loved ones through. I met one woman from Georgia whose husband had been in the hospital for over a month.

My mother handled her recoveries with grace, humility, and a formidable strength admirable for a woman her age. She always had a smile and a witty comment for her caregivers and a kind word for her fellow patients she passed in the hall. She never once lost her sense of humor or her ability to laugh at herself. No matter how horrible she felt, she’d pull out her cosmetics bag and hair curler and made herself presentable. On the day of her last surgery, the five-hour operation that resulted in thirty-three staples in her tummy, she told her surgeon in pre-op, “Let’s do this thing. I just got my passport renewed, and I’m ready to go.” Aside from traveling the world, being able to wear white jeans again was her motivation to get well.

A friend encouraged me to treasure this time with my mother. I thought her advice strange at first. I hated seeing my mother so miserable. Every night, I fell into bed in my hotel room and every morning I woke dreading the day ahead. Minutes on clocks tick slower in hospitals. Encountering the grim faces on patients and family members wears on you after a while. But the one-on-one companionship I shared with Mom was a gift I would not otherwise have had. We had some great heart-to-heart talks during our numerous laps around the sixth floor with Mom shuffling alongside me in her slippers, gripping her IV pole. Of course, she remembers none of it. Who knows why? Probably from the anesthesia. Possibly the pain meds. Maybe selective memory. Although I’m disappointed she doesn’t remember our special time together, she’s better off not remembering how much she suffered.

On one particularly rough day, after surgery number three, the fear of losing my mom gave me pause to reflect on what a positive role model she’s been for me. By example, I learned to take care of my family and home and to always consider the needs of others before my own. She shared with me her talents in the garden and at the stove, and my career as a writer steamed from our mutual love of reading.

Neither Mom nor I would have survived that harrowing day if not for the nurses’ expert skills and compassion. When I commenced work on Nell and Lady, it seemed only fitting for one of my two main characters to be a nurse. I’ve always had great admiration for women and men who’ve chosen nursing as a career. But my appreciation for them grew during my time on Six West. We knew all of the nurses by name, and I spent a great deal of time studying them and wondering about their professional and personal lives. Their jobs are demanding and their many good deeds are often unappreciated. They juggle the constant demands from their patients all day (typically three consecutive days of twelve-hour shifts) and then go home to children and spouses and household chores at night. A hospital never sleeps, although they dim the lights in the hallways and pretend. I know first-hand the demons that come out of patients in the middle of the night. Nurses who work the night shift get an extra gold star in my book.

I lost my cool more than once and I’m sure they thought me a PITA at times, but we developed a mutual respect for one another based on our concern for my mother’s care. When I returned home to Richmond after each of Mom’s surgeries, I was both physically exhausted and emotionally spent for days. Aside from the occasional day off, nurses never get to leave. The minute my mother was released from the hospital, a new patient was wheeled into her vacated room from surgery and the process of healing began all over again. It takes a certain breed of person to do what they do day in and day out. But they do it because they love helping others.

Here’s to the angels in blue scrubs on Six West.

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