Some things in life are easy to describe. I have a friend named Jessie. We have worked together for years. At first, it was at a physical therapy clinic in New Jersey. Jessie ran the front desk and made sure that the scheduling and insurance authorization ran smoothly. I later convinced Jessie to apply for a job in the nursing home wherein I worked. The nursing home was a slipshod organization; I was not sure if Jessie wanted this job, but I felt that I needed her. The nursing home needed her more. When Jessie accepted this position, everything changed in that place.
Jessie’s job description was to coordinate the care of the elderly for their rehabilitation needs. Not only did Jessie perform these requisite duties, she also adored the residents of the nursing home. When dropping off printed information to each of the four nursing stations at this place, she was found helping residents getting dressed, she lifted them on and off toilets, and she pushed patients in their wheelchairs to her desk and talked to them while she did her computer work. These qualities in a person like Jessie are easy to write about.
This day was somewhat different from the other days that we worked at the nursing home. This day is harder to describe. The patients had awakened earlier, even the ones with dementia. It was as though they knew that something unusual was happening. The nurses were taking extra time with dressing and grooming the residents. By 9 am that morning, the residents had a look of thrilled anticipation, as they sat in circles in their wheelchairs.
It was around that time, in late morning, that droves of families entered the building. Jessie and I had never witnessed this before. People pulled up in SUV’s and carried trays of turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pies, yam casseroles and they set up their Thanksgiving meals in the Dining Hall of the nursing home. As a staff, we had never before seen such attention paid to the residents.
Jessie is an avid football fan, but primarily of the New York Giants. She rushed around to each of the four wings of the nursing home and ensured that football was on every television. We brought the patients to the rehab gym and blasted Chubby Checker, while they walked and exercised and their families watched in awe. Jessie and I ate a Thanksgiving meal made by the cooking staff, after we were finished taking care of everyone.
That was year one of our Thanksgiving tradition. Jessie and I worked together on this day for the next two years. We grew to look forward to it. There were great-grandmothers who held infant relatives for the first time. Toddlers wandered down hallways and banged into wheelchairs, they were picked up and consoled. Middle-aged men shouted against referee calls in football. The cooking staff of the nursing home took great pride in their green bean casserole recipe. Families offered their food to other residents and brought the food to their tables (for residents who had no family at all to visit).
This next part of this story is even more difficult to describe. It was after our third Thanksgiving together that Jessie was involved in a motor vehicle accident. One of the vertebrae in her neck was shattered. Thereafter, everyone in the nursing home asked how she was doing. I never answered them, because I did not know how she was doing. Nobody knew. Not even the doctors.
Jessie had become paralyzed and could no longer walk. She needs a wheelchair to get around now. Jessie also needs a caregiver to address her physical needs. This came as a shock, as this is the same woman who helped others to address theirs. Jessie used to help diaper people. This was never her job. But she did it anyway, because she has a fiery heart and refuses to allow others to ask for help. She just gives it, without question.
Jessie lives a few hours away in Pennsylvania. I think about the losses that we have sustained. We have lost most of the elderly patients we cared for. Jessie has lost her ability to walk. It seems all too easy to fixate on these very hard realities. And these things are quite real; they cannot be reversed. Just as the old people in nursing homes without families cannot be soothed by some green bean casserole made by the staff.
But here is the thing that sustains the holiday of Thanksgiving: there are families who welcome the ones without families to their tables. The clamor of the preparation and dressing of the elderly in their finest clothing for this holiday is important. When Jessie changed the channel of the televisions so that our patients could watch football, she changed everything. Jessie created a holiday, in a place known for a lack of celebration. I will be with my family this Thanksgiving, and Jessie will be with hers.
I miss my nursing home Thanksgivings with Jessie. I miss the woman who made a festival out of nothing at all. When I smell turkey, I remember Jessie hurrying around to push patients in their wheelchairs, so that they could find a piece of joy. Jessie made everyone feel like family. While the New York Giants may not be doing their best lately, I thank the Master of the Universe for football, for crying toddlers who crash into wheelchairs, for the very old people who teach us everything we need to know, and for the Jessies of the world.
I met Anthony in December of 2017. He was 99 years old and living in a senior building in New Jersey. Before I entered this building, I did what any home care physical therapist would. I read his medical chart on a computer. I did this in my car in the freezing cold and I blew into my fingers to keep them warm as I scrolled between each paragraph.
Anthony had been hospitalized for Respiratory Distress two months ago. His legs and lungs had swelled with fluid when his daughter had brought him to a local hospital. Anthony was put on a ventilator and should not have made it. Only something strange happened. Anthony had recovered. He was weaned from a ventilator. At age 99. I blew into my freezing fingers again and triple checked the information on my computer. This could not be true.
I entered the apartment of Anthony expecting to find a listless, incoherent man in a hospital bed. Instead, I saw a vibrant person with a full head of silver hair, seated on a fancy armchair in his living room. “You must be my physical therapist,” Anthony said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I am glad you came, because I am ready to walk today.”
I informed Anthony that he was in luck, because that was exactly my intention. I hooked my bag on the back of a dining room chair. As I took off my coat, the glint of gold caught my eye. There were black and white pictures and war medals displayed on the wall behind my patient. It was as though I was in a museum.
“It was so cold in France during that battle,” Anthony said. “The snow fell hard, it came up to our waists and then our chests. Many men had frostbite, and a medic would come to amputate their toes and fingers, but we just kept fighting anyway. I remember my platoon-mate, Frank. He was from Indiana. He had a wife named May. I lost Frank during that war, his head was blown off right in front of me.”
Well, this explained why a 99 year old was weaned off of a ventilator, I thought to myself. Anthony had lived through the impossible. He was refusing to die in old age over a breathing problem. And I had a job to do. I promptly retrieved his rolling walker and got Anthony into a standing position. “Let’s go out into the hallway,” I suggested. “It might do you some good to get out of this apartment.”
As we walked through the apartment building hallway, I was struck by the many people who were coming and going who knew and loved Anthony. Where have you been? We have missed you! We were so worried about you, his neighbors declared. Anthony merely nodded and smiled, as he walked further than most people who are years younger. He was determined to keep going. Anthony loved walking and physical therapy.
Anthony’s progress in physical therapy was nothing short of remarkable. His spirit was indomitable. But there came a day when I visited him when he was inconsolable and did not want to participate. “What is going on?” I asked Anthony. “This is not you, this is not the man that I know.” Anthony looked up at me from his chair. “You can’t understand why this day is so important to me. It is December sixteenth. This is the day of the Battle of the Bulge. Every year, on this day, I get on a plane to Florida to spend time with my fellow soldiers. This is the first year that I am not strong enough to be with them.”
What could I say to that? How could I respond? I did what I could. I told Anthony that we needed to walk in the hallway. I assured him that it would make him feel better, though I was not sure that this was true. Anthony slowly stood up, and we took our requisite walk together. There were no people exiting or entering their apartments to cheer him on. It was just a corridor with fluorescent lights and a man with a walker, his healthcare worker guiding him along.
We arrived back at Anthony’s apartment and he lowered himself into his chair. Anthony began to gasp and wheeze. I quickly ran to get his oxygen tubing and apply it to his nose. He pushed it away. “Stop,” he commanded. “I am going to tell you something. And you must listen to me.” I was gravely worried about his breathing.
Anthony then began to laugh. He laughed so hard that I was torn between laughing with him and calling Emergency Services. This is what he told me then: “I used to go on cruise ships to the Bahamas. I loved cruises. I could gamble and eat and see the world! It was only ten years ago that I was on a cruise and I could walk with only a cane. I was wearing my World War II cap when I got on an elevator. The elevator door was ready to close and a young woman spotted my cap. She asked me where I had fought in the war and I told her that I was in the Battle of the Bulge. The girl held the elevator door open and shouted, ‘Grandpa, there is another guy here who fought in your battle!’”
Anthony’s normal breathing pattern had returned and so had the sparkle in his eye. He told me that a very tall man approached the elevator on the cruise ship. “I fought in ze Battle of ze Bulge also,” the man declared in a German accent. “Only I fought for ze other side.” Anthony responded in the cleverest of ways. He swung his cane up against his shoulder and shouted, “Ready your Bayonets!” (This was the battle call for the Allies during the war). The German man beamed. And from that moment on, Anthony and the German soldier Hans spent every meal together on the cruise, exchanging war stories, gambling at card tables and talking about their grandchildren.
Just seventy years earlier, these men had been trained to kill each other. They likely would have, in the moment of the battle. Instead, they found each other in the most unlikely of circumstances, as older men, in the sun and on a vacation. With nothing to gain or lose. They saw each other only as people who had suffered a mutual loss, with the same story, on opposite sides of a very thin fence.
As healthcare workers, we are faced with the same divide of that thin fence. As practitioners, we are often younger and healthier than our patients, we blow into our fingers in the cold as we trudge through the landmines of billing, changes in health insurance, and the stress of ensuring that we are not harming people. It feels like a cold and heavy battle some days.
It is only when we lay down our arms and bayonets that we can see each other. Once we do this, we can finally see our patients as equals. We can see an elderly woman as our mother, a frail old man as that favorite uncle who we might have wanted to know better. Once we gather together on the deck of a ship in the sunlight, we can see that there is no battle to be fought anymore. We can simply share stories and laugh and realize that the very thin fence that separated us was really nothing at all.
That is the trick to our jobs, the thing that keeps us going in the worst of weather. If we think that we are at war, then we always will be. But like Anthony and the German soldier Hans, if we listen with compassion and care, we may just find ourselves on the same side as everyone we treat. This is a place where humans long to be. The deep and aching loneliness of the battle loses power when we choose to sit in the sun and remember that we are the same as our patients. It is then that we have won the battle.
Some things in life happen where we least expect them. At a Veteran’s home in NJ, there lives a man who was born in the Bronx. His name is Joe B. Joe served as a Marine in World War II and returned home to the tri-state area. He joined the Newark police force and married a woman he met at a local swimming pool.
Joe’s father had been a fan of the New York Yankees. Naturally, Joe assumed the lineage of his family and imagined that he, himself, was standing on the pitcher’s mound of Yankee stadium as he fired rounds from his Model 10 single action handgun for his annual police shooting qualification.
That same evening, Joe B. just happened to sit at a table with two members of the Boston Red Sox. One was Carl Yastrzemski. Mr. Yastrzemski had just finished what would be the greatest season of his entire career. The other diner at the table was Johnny Pesky, who would later be named “Mr. Red Sox”. Johnny Pesky played for the Bosox and later returned as a coach for his team. Pesky was a left-handed hitter who threw with his right hand.
The Newark cop sat in the company of these two men. Joe listened to their theories on the trickery of the hand stitched baseball. His fingers ached to understand the power behind their wondrous skills, and after merely a few minutes at the table, before the antipasto was placed upon it, Joe had stopped sneaking glances across the room towards the New York Yankee ball team.
You see, Joe was willing to see greatness in front of him. Despite his family’s leanings towards the opposing team, a cop in New Jersey strayed from his roots to follow a divergent path. Much like one who throws with his left hand and bats with his right.
We are all just one dinner away from change. From meeting the Carl Yastrzemski of our own lives, whoever that may be. Our hero. Our proof that astounding things are within our grasp; with our left or right hands.
*I rediscovered this story as the Red Sox won the World Series this past week! I had written it a few years back, in honor of my Grandparents and my Dad, avid Sox fans all.
The tale of Joe B. meeting Carl Yastrzemski does not directly fall into the category of caregiving, which is the purpose of this blog. But it does underline the things we can learn when we care for others…the remarkable underpinnings that connect us as human beings. Joe B. is probably not alive anymore. Yet as the Red Sox won on Sunday, October 28th, 2018, I remembered him and leapt in the air with joy.
I was already a Red Sox fan when I met him, mind you. Joe had sustained a stroke which rendered him unable to walk in the nursing home. He could not use his right hand at all, but ate an ice cream sandwich with his left as he told me this story. I believe that my time with Joe, however brief, was one of my own dinners closer to change.