I was effected on many levels, mostly for the state the body can succumb too but also the way we view people we don't have any way of understanding. I had an experience when I was working as a PCW (Personal care worker) that always stuck with me. I truly believed I was experiencing a magical moment although I was told to believe in coincidence. Deep down I knew they were wrong, and since viewing this video I feel vindicated that it was a truly special moment.
At the nursing home where I worked, they told the new trainees very little about the resident’s afflictions so I'm not sure what this woman had, but her body was frozen rock solid from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. She was sort of twisted in a strange angle as if lying on her side. She obviously had problems to begin with but once bed ridden, she atrophied into a human stick and was kept alive through intravenous means. Basically her care amounted to constant rotation to stave off bed sores and a daily sponge bath. Still in training, I was an acting assistant to the nurses and more experienced PCW's.
I don’t profess to know more than medical professionals, but I will admit to being a bit disturbed when the care givers talked in front of the woman about their lives, what they did over the weekend, parties, drinking, sexual escapades, swearing, you name it, conversations that were not appropriate in front of a patient. Washing someone’s naked body is very intimate and I felt uncomfortable as it was. They were caring for a living human being while treating her with no more respect than washing a chicken at the kitchen sink. I questioned the behavior and was told that she could not hear, see, speak or think. Basically they were washing a cadaver with a heartbeat.
Now, maybe I was just being emotional, but I couldn’t accept that there was nothing going on inside this poor woman. There had to be some brain function or her heart would cease to beat, her lungs cease to breathe. Something was keeping her clock ticking. It just didn’t seem fair or make sense that she was on auto pilot. Surely there had to be something going on in there to man the controls?
I believe in coincidence to a certain degree until logic starts to kick in to shake that theory up a bit. What if modern medicine was wrong? What if there was a part of this woman locked deep inside her brain? Maybe she could hear those silly women bantering back and forth, being callous and disrespectful. What if?…….was all I could think and think I did...I mulled over it for weeks.
So one day due to short staffing they sent me into the woman's room to give her a sponge bath and check for hot spots. Keeping bed sores at bay is a full time occupation in a nursing home and once one sprouts it’s a damn sight harder to reverse than preventing them in the first place. On my own, I was uncomfortable washing her, she looked so frail I worried I would be too rough or do something wrong. I kept looking into her eyes for a spark of awareness and found none. My nervousness manifested into rambling speech so I flapped my jaws about the weather, the price of gas and any tidbit that popped into my head that might be of interest to someone void of a life outside the room.
I was just about finished when the first snow of winter began to fall like confetti outside the window. Big flakes fluttered to the earth and quickly transformed the grass to a blanket of white. I started talking about the snow, how beautiful it was, how it would be fun to catch one on my tongue. I said I wished that she could see the snow. Then I told her Christmas would soon be here and how I remember sleigh coasting down our hill and building snowmen when I was a young girl. I even started to hum an off-tuned “White Christmas”.
I looked over at the woman’s face. There was a big tear streaking down her cheek. I brushed it away and another replaced it. So I kept humming and talking. Telling her of my childhood and all the fun I had in winter, skating on the pond behind the house and building snow forts. The tears kept flowing. I kept gently wiping them away and talking in a soft voice. I felt as if I was witnessing a miracle. The bath was now over and I brushed her hair. It was odd, stuck off in all directions and cropped without care of style, a veritable rat’s nest. I continued to talk to her about my plans for the holidays. She continued to cry.
And then my time with her was up. A nurse came in to see what was taking so long and I excitedly told her that the woman could hear what I said. I was told no, that it was impossible. I relayed what happened but I was told that it was just a coincidence. I asked if the woman had ever cried before and the answer was no, but that it was just an involuntary reaction. I never believed it for a second. Something in me said she had communicated in the only way she could. She let me know there was still a person inside the frozen shell. Maybe that was the first time in years anyone talked to her instead of over her.
Unfortunately they never let me care for her again. I was reprimanded for being a trouble maker because I kept insisting the woman heard me. Now I’m not a member of the medical profession so any argument I may have didn’t have a leg to stand on and I hadn’t walked in her shoes either, no one had, so what do we really know? We weren’t supposed to get close to the residents, just do the work and move on, everything was on a time allowance and holding the hand of someone crying, involuntary or voluntary didn’t fit the schedule.
The woman died shortly after. I went to the funeral home to pay my last respects but couldn’t find her in any of the rooms. I asked the director and he said she was there…that I had seen her. No way I thought. The only woman on display was beautiful, with soft features and perfectly coiffed curly hair and make-up. But it was her and I was astounded. After death her body must have relaxed or else the funeral director worked magic. Her face was soft and lovely, no sign of the disease that solidified her features. I said my private goodbye.
And one more quick story of how a small dose of caring made a difference. I grew very fond of one of the male residents who was riddled with bone cancer. Moving him was precarious as one wrong move, a simple slip and his limbs could snap in two. He was chalky inside, brittle and frail with little time left on this mortal coil. I was never privy to his daily maintenance but one day I was asked to assist in moving him to his other side and once in the room, I was now in his life.
I was like an emotional virus carrier. Every where I went I spread it around. I was warned many times to keep my emotions in check, stop visiting with the residents and not take the job home with me. Stop staying after hours to chat and hold hands as the residents would demand more and more of my time. I was told it would never be enough. Their loneliness was palpable, empty vessels starved to be filled. Some of them had no family visits or phone calls, they were left there to die, abandoned and alone. Quite frankly I couldn’t see any harm in. My choice, my time. I know now it was to protect the residents from being hurt if I grew tired of them, got fired, quit or god forbid died, but I was young…nothing made sense except the way I felt. I was always an advocate for the underdog so I wondered, where did the wants and needs of these hollow people come in to play? They were like houses, you can scrape and paint the outside but if you don’t pay attention to the inside the house can still fall to ruins. And maybe they were there waiting to die but didn't they deserve more than green, pureed food and a diaper? Isn't it everyone's given right to be happy?
So I would sneak into the man’s room to chat every break or chance I had. He called me “That girl” as he could never remember my name. He’d say, “there's that girl!" as if he had been waiting for me since the minute I left. Within a few days of visiting with him, he started perking up a bit and asked for things. First came the TV, he was no longer willing to wait around to die in quiet. He wanted noise in his life and not just the clatter of meal trays from the hallway. He had always loved The Price is Right and Bob Barker saying “Come on down!”. Then he wanted to hear music, something to shorten the long arduous hours he lay there. He asked for sunglasses so the blinds could be opened so he could see outside. Then he wanted ice cream, his favorite all-time dessert. He had no dietary restrictions and at his stage of cancer it was like a meal from the wish foundation. He wanted to share with me and and we sat licking the strawberry cream from plastic spoons, moaning how good it was.
Now I knew things weren’t great with him, considering he would sometimes drink out of his urinal but there were lucid moments no one could deny. Smiling, such an easy thing to do, takes so little effort but he hadn’t done it for years, had no reason too. But now he beamed from ear to ear when he saw me enter the room. You know the saying, his eyes lit up? Well that was exactly what happened. It was like a light being switched on, I still tear up thinking about it.
I don’t know exactly what I represented to him. A friend? Maybe he was sweet on me? But it didn’t really matter; I was someone who paid him a bit of attention, made him feel like he was worth more than a bed bath and a hair comb. Even though his days were numbered he now had a reason to wake in the morning and could smile through the pain. No family ever came to visit, I asked, so he lived for glimpses of me. It was a pretty potent drug knowing I had the power that could make a dying man want to enjoy the bit of time that remained and a powerful lesson in the need for human contact, human touch. I was warned once again that I had started something so I had better take it to the end but that went without saying. I truly cared for him and would be there every day, as long as he needed me.
And then one morning I arrived early to say hi before my shift. The bed sheets were stripped and the window opened to air out the room. He had died in the night, all alone; with no one there to hold his hand…all I could hope was that the morphine didn’t allow any pain. In a way I was relieved for him, his pain was now over and as I stood in the doorway, heart breaking I thought I heard him say, “There’s that girl………”