“Hi. I’m Louise. What’s your name?” I asked the woman wheeled up in her wheelchair across the dining hall table from me. “Lonnie,” she said. Then she pulled her arms up onto the table and as they flailed about uncontrollably, she added with a wicked grin, “And this is Parkinson's.”
Lonnie turned out to be every bit as hilarious as her self-designed introduction — a real jewel in a growing group of ageless friends at the nursing facility where I temporarily live while recovering from surgery. I’m one of a motley band of physically-impaired people from every walk of life thrown into a mixing bowl and stirred together. Our common thread is the desire to leave this place. In fact, our meal time conversations sound eerily like prison questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? Why are you here? When do you get to leave?
I’m here to rehabilitate a replaced hip. Lots of new hips and knees are among us. We’re gingerly learning how to do what we’ve been doing all our lives — walk again. It’s humbling — and frustrating — to start over again. We, of the Walker Patrol, carefully, slowly roll up and down the halls as we take our sweet time getting from here to there without falling.
How soon we get to leave depends on the level of our fighter mentality. You don’t stand still in a place whose mission is to help you heal and move on. You either sink or swim. When the occupational therapist or physical therapist shows up at your room, you grab your walker and hobble to the PT room where the next hour or two you work like a demon. You either do the work and get out of here, or you don’t do the work and you’re stuck. If you want to go home in a functioning body, you pay the price. No one is held captive. But that’s how I know who the fighters are. They could go home — but they don’t. They stay and struggle — like a chick coming out of an egg. Don’t help me get out of bed; I need to learn how to do that on my own. Give me another round on that exercise bike; my leg isn’t strong enough yet.
I love the fighters; they inspire me. Especially the ones who laugh at themselves. Like Abby. She could wear a wig to cover her fuzzy chemo head (her description), but why? She’s beautiful without it, mostly because of her spirited, determined personality that makes me wish I lived next door to her. She’s figured out the power of humor against the darkness of despair.
Despair does have a place here. As frail as our slowly repairing human bodies are, it’s tough to stave off discouragement. I’ve noticed a few ways that outsiders (family and friends) help their loved ones stay above that darkness. Some are surprisingly simple:
- Bring something from home, like a familiar blanket to cover that institutional bedspread.
- Encourage the physical therapy. It’s the ticket out of here. Not everyone loves it; some hate to see their OT or PT come. But there’s no other way to get well — and no short cut.
- Listen. Let her talk, and talk some more. Those rooms get lonely. TV doesn’t cut it.
- Go sit with your resident on Bingo day and cheer him on. I thought I didn’t want to play Bingo at first — sounded a little too “old” for (high and mighty) me. But I went anyways, and had a blast, not because I won (I didn’t) but because others around me enthusiastically did.
- If your resident is refusing to shower, check on it. The “why” might be because she doesn’t have the courage to tell that polite male nurse that she’d prefer a female nurse to help her. So she just doesn’t shower at all. Fix that for her or him.
- Never, ever move the walker. It’s like taking away our legs.
- Check the meds. We’re trusting and on drugs. The nurses and staff do their best. But keep a stable eye on what we’re ingesting because that stuff keeps us a little loopy.
- Join your resident for lunch. The food’s OK. The company is awesome. Be ready for anything. You might cut up someone’s meat for them. Or coax conversation out of the latest arrival who doesn’t know the chatter yet. If your friend is shy, help her talk to others so she has friends when you’re not there.
Our commonality is our present impairment; our common goal is to go home. We battle custom designed enemies — unstable legs, unreliable bowels, broken bones, impaired hearts, numbed minds, pain, weariness, gravity. The one enemy we have in common — loneliness — is the one enemy friends and family can slay. So above all else, visit and visit often.
If my rehab plans work out, I’ll be home by the time this prints. Gone, but can’t forget. Grateful to OT and PT coaches, obliged to expert nurses and administrators, and forever in love with a tiny community of comrades whom I’ll likely never see again, but am changed because of them.