Sitting all alone in his chair,
He tries to enjoy the outside air.
In a world of his own, lost in thought,
This is not part of the life he once sought.
The walls that surround him have become home,
They brought him here, then left him alone.
Beneath his scowl and mean look on his face,
Lies a human, a heart, a soul full of grace.
His sad eyes a story do tell.
Whatever the cause- his spirits once fell.
The world passes by not a second to take
To notice how badly this man's heart aches.
If you take a second to just stop and talk,
His face starts to soften, then he asks for a walk.
He lowers his voice and attempts to be kind,
To show that he appreciates your time.
It doesn't take long for a smile to appear
And soon after that it's his laugh that you hear.
Others may tell you to leave him alone.
That's what they do- that's all that he's known.
Don't be afraid to take a few minutes,
But please be prepared for he'll test your limits.
The rewards you receive far outweigh the bad.
At least for a moment, you'll know he's not sad.
In my last post I briefly explained that I claimed many residents to be my "favorites". I wrote this poem in 2004 about Russell, my true favorite resident. Initially he was one of the residents I dreaded seeing, but I will share with you how he became my favorite resident and how he showed me that I could make a difference.
The first position I ever held in a health care institution was that of receptionist. My only work history in Restaurant (Fast Food) Management. I was burned out and in desperate need of change. I will eternally be grateful for the woman who hired me, as she afforded me the opportunity to make that change, and in turn allowed me to realize and use the gifts I have been given.
In addition to answering the phones, filing, making copies and other menial office duties, I was responsible for the Resident Trust Fund and cigarette distribution. The fund is very much like a banking system for residents in facilities. It is a place where they (or their family members) can deposit and withdraw money for outings, the snack machines, cigarettes and other personal needs items not covered by their stay. Many of the residents, due to dementia or other psychiatric illnesses, had their daily withdrawals and cigarette consumption limited by their concerned family members. Russell was one of these residents.
Russell had lost the ability to walk, but was able to propel himself around in his wheelchair. He had a long list of diagnoses including paranoid schizophrenia and diabetes. He was a very sick man. The staff often had difficulty managing his diabetes and his love for Diet Coke didn't help their endeavor. Because of this, his guardian had a strict $1.00 per day limit on his account payable in two withdrawals of 50 cents each- enough for one diet coke twice a day. In addition to his spending limit, he was allowed 2 cigarettes every two hours.
My desk was located in the front office. The front office was just inside the front doors and very busy as it housed the business office, the copy and fax machines,and management mailboxes. Inside there was a window that opened up to the lobby and that was where most transactions occurred. Every morning he would roll up to the window and demand his 50 cents, then immediately wheel to the soda machine to get his Diet Coke. Soon after, I would hear the familiar sound of a can top popping and within seconds he would have guzzled down the drink. And more often than not, after having just inhaled his breakfast he would immediately vomit. Right in front of the window. Being new to health care, I had a very weak stomach, and would gag as I called for his C.N.A (certified nurses assistant) to come get him, and for housekeeping to come clean up the mess. As soon as he was cleaned up, he would roll right up to the window demanding another 50 cents. Impatiently, I would explain that he already had his 50 cents and that he was not allowed more until after lunch. With a scowl he would yell "AWWW COME ON!" and ask again. When satisfied that I was not giving in, he would roll away, trolling the hallways begging staff, residents and family members for money. (One Christmas he got a camera from his guardian and would roll through the halls snapping pictures of the staff. After getting them developed he would offer the staff members pictures of themselves for- you guessed it! 50 cents. I have to give him credit for his ingenuity.)
For several weeks this continued. I soon became more patient and often would sense his presence. I would look up and see him sitting quietly by my window. It was during one of these times, that I took the time to really see him. I looked at him, dejectedly sitting in his chair. His shoulders slumped, head in his hands, bits of egg and toast- remnants of breakfast on his shirt and lap. The weight loss from his recent hospital stay made obvious by his ill-fitting clothes. He must have felt my eyes, taking him in, and he looked at me. His chocolate brown eyes met mine and in that instant I saw more than just a man with a mental illness. I suddenly realized that I had never seen him smile. It then became my personal mission to see a smile upon this man's face. I had no idea at the time how difficult that would be. When he came to my window, I attempted building some kind of rapport with him. I would talk about the weather, ask him about his interests, his family- what he had for breakfast. For weeks, I my only response was a grunt and another demand for cigarettes or money.
And then, one day, he was sitting outside my window as I was leaving for lunch. He wheeled up to me and quietly asked me if I would take him outside. My facility had what is called the wander guard system. A series of alarms on doors and ankle bracelets alert the staff when a confused resident is attempting to get outside. He had on the ankle bracelet and was not permitted outside without a staff member to override the system and look after him while he was outside. Initially, I was annoyed- I only had 30 minutes and had already punched out- but something in his eyes made me honor his request. I punched in the code, assisted him through the door and watched as he wheeled over to one of the benches and parked his chair next to it. I sat next to him on the bench and we sat quietly for a few minutes before he asked to go back inside. A few days later he again requested that I take him outside, but this time he wanted me to take him for a walk. I wheeled him around the parking lot, while he silently sat in his chair, taking in his surroundings. This went on for many days.
One particular day, he asked me to take him off the grounds. I agreed. I pushed him down the street, as he looked at the homes, listened to the birds and watched the traffic pass. I had come to enjoy the quiet time outside of the hustle and bustle of my office and was walking along lost in my own thoughts when he put down his feet, stopping his chair. He looked up at me, "Thank You", he said and then he smiled. I can not describe the feeling that came over me in that instant. When I had set out on my "mission" without success, it had almost become a game to me, a competition with myself. But once I finally achieved my goal, I realized that I was not the only one who had won. And instantly it became more about him, than about me.
Our daily walks continued for three years, until I was promoted into a position that didn't allow me time for daily walks- though I still took time a few times a week for our walk. During that time, we became friends. I learned that he was a Vietnam Vet, having served in the Navy. He talked about his mother and his only son. He showed me photos of his grandchildren. And sometimes, when he was having a particularly rough day, we would walk in silence, just as we had in the beginning- simply enjoying one another's company. About five years after I first met Russell, he was moved to another facility because of insurance issues. Less than a month later he died. I was devastated. I knew that his death was inevitable and likely to be sudden, but I really struggled with not being there with him at the end.
Russell, was the reason that I became a Recreation Director, he is one of the reasons I have the desire to go to nursing school. Russell taught me that I have so much of myself to give to others, and that if I just take a little extra time, I could really be making a difference in their lives. I think of Russell often. I think of how frustrated he could make me, on his bad days. I remember his wonderful smile. I remember many times being called at home to "deal with him" because he and I had a special connection that no one else could duplicate. And most often, I think of our walks. The special time we had, where the silence we shared spoke volumes. And I know now, that he is at peace. His mind is quiet, his body whole, and I like to imagine him sitting quietly by a cooler with an endless supply of Diet Coke.
I'm not sure what story I will share tomorrow, but I do hope you have enjoyed them thus far. I love your comments, so if any of my posts have touched you, leave me a note below. Be sure to "like" my page so you'll be sure not too miss any upcoming posts!
Other Posts in this series: The Nursing Home and Me, The Nursing Home and Me Part 2- Reunited, The Nursing Home and Me Part 4- It's Not Always as it Appears, The Nursing Home and Me Part 5- Miracle at Ellis Island.