Stories involving nursing homes are rarely uplifting. But the one I'm about to share adopts my outlook on life's shades of gray. I check out the setting and acknowledge the darkness, and then I'm looking for the light because I need to survive and, in doing so, bring something positive to the scene. I genuinely enjoyed the people who I'm going to introduce to you. We laughed together and misbehaved until I was caught making the best of a bad situation.
It happened decades ago when I was working my way through the university and took whatever job I was offered. Some I was unfit to perform (like being a waitress in a coffee shop or hustling drinks in a bar). I think incompatibility for jobs like these stems from a personality disorder that makes it intolerable for me to take orders and not 'talk back.'
So, when I was hired as the activities director for a convalescent home, I knew I'd rub management the wrong way. But the residents who (most likely) didn't want to reside there might do with a boost of light-hearted, hyper-active me. My job was in the halls and rooms where management seldom strayed.
The director who hired me was known only as Head Nurse. She had a spacious office off the main entry and a gurgling drinking fountain next to her door. A sign was tacked above it – "Not for patient use. Staff only." Framed pictures of flowers and baby animals decorated the cheerful yellow walls of the public foyer.
A pair of alarmed, swinging doors led to the heartbeat of the facility. The halls were painted a dull green and embellished with fire extinguishers and emergency alarms. Despite the gloomy atmosphere, I felt okay with the gig because the residents inspired me and, almost 50 years later, remain unforgettable. Here are a few of my favorites:
Rex – About 60 years old, a former chronic alcoholic whose drinking severely damaged his brain. Rex would stand, shifting from one foot to the other – hand outstretched as if holding a cigarette – which is what he wanted most in life. He often tried to start a conversation with me – getting one or two words out before saying "cigarette" and then nothing else. Rex wasn't allowed to have matches or a lighter. Lacking those tools, Rex would eat his cigarettes. I gathered a couple of other men who were smokers, and we had a weekly smoke-out in the facility's central courtyard. Rex stopped consuming tobacco in anticipation of regularly scheduled smoking sessions. This was step number one to getting on the radar of Head Nurse who didn't tolerate change.
The Duo – Meet Georgos and Billy, a 9-year-old boy with advanced cerebral palsy confined to a wheelchair. Georgos - an elder Greek immigrant, also in a wheelchair. Billy wasn't able to form sentences, and Georgos had reverted to his native language. He lovingly spoke Greek to Billy, tucking a blanket around his legs and pushing the boy's wheelchair in front of his. Georgos had a laugh that came from his Mediterranean soul, and it made his young buddy twist up his head and smile. One day Georgos pushed Billy to my side. In English, he said, "You listen!" and nudged the boy. Billy tilted his head in slow motion and said, "Ka … laaa, Kaaa…la." Greek for good, good. Georgos beamed.
Anita - A woman about 35 years old, born with tiny deformed arms and legs, though her body was developed to near normal size. She spent her days on her stomach on her bed, and when I sat to talk to her, she answered in a barely audible voice. Anita never came to the gatherings I held in the community room. No one was told to get her out of bed and into a wheelchair. I talked to a nurse's aide who had a little crush on me, and he got Anita off her stomach and seated in a wheelchair. She beamed as he rolled her into the community room and, with pressure off her lungs, pushed out a full-voiced, "I'm here!." Anita was smart and quick to laugh once her breath was restored.
Gracie – A child in a woman's body, Gracie was a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. She paced the halls, talking to the air, and occasionally burst forth with obscenities worthy of a sailor. She wore baggy dresses, ankle socks, and slippers that were three sizes too big. She had a full set of false teeth. Gracie became my partner. She'd follow me on visits to patients' rooms and wait outside the door. I snuck her out a rear door and took her out to shop for more colorful clothes at the nearby Goodwill store. On other escapes, we'd go to the nearby ice cream shop. The staff there got to know her, and they bet on how many bites it would take for her to consume a three-scoop sundae. She'd remove her teeth, place them on the counter, and put the ice cream down in two bites. Gracie became loyal to me and freely flung curses at anyone she felt had not treated me kindly.
Sharon – A gracious woman with advanced Parkinson's disease - helplessly trapped in her room. She was a former high school teacher who spoke with pride about students she guided through the battlegrounds of adolescence. She gestured with trembling hands as she remembered the days when she was important to someone. A walker was stashed inside her closet. She told me it was only used for trips to the bathroom. The staff was too busy to take her out to walk the halls. I'd started an exercise group in the community room and figured Sharon could benefit. I got my smitten aide to help me get her safely out of bed, and I walked her down the hall to our twice-weekly sessions.
I enjoyed skipping down the halls and greetings patients in their rooms. I sang, danced, and acted like a fool. It amused my new friends, and many told me stories from their long lives. We laughed and let loose with a few tears. I felt like I had the back of the house humming a happy tune for a few hours on a few days of the week.
Till one day, when I showed up to work and learned my one-way crush had been fired. And when I was called into the office of Head Nurse, I correctly suspected I was next. Wearing her white peaked cap and pursing her lips, she quickly outlined my transgressions that included the mundane - I was "too noisy, disruptive" to the much more grave "Practicing medicine without a license." This referred to holding gentle exercise sessions, getting Anita off her stomach and lungs, and walking Sharon down the hall for 15 minutes. Trips to the ice cream store with Gracie hadn't been captured on the Head Nurse
I don't remember what I said to her before she reached for the phone on her desk, but it wasn't a polite goodbye. I sprinted to the doors leading to the patient's rooms and down the hallways shouting farewells and blowing kisses, simultaneously planning my revenge.
On my way out the front door, I saw that an act of retribution had already occurred. The drinking fountain next to the office of Head Nurse was spilling water out onto the floor – because a pair of false teeth was covering the drain.
But the image of Head Nurse digging Gracie's teeth out of the drain wasn't enough for me. I wrote letters to politicians, the parent company of the convalescent chain, and the state medical board. A few years later, I picked up a copy of the "LA Times," and near the bottom of the front page was an article about an investigation into the chain of convalescent homes. It had been too long in the past for my letters to have been the trigger. But whatever it took to reveal a 'home' that had no heart was a step in the right direction. Within one year, that facility closed its doors – for good.
Thank you all for reading a blog that's uncharacteristically a bit of a downer. But these things happen in life and there are lessons to be learned - and even moments to enjoy. And big thanks to all the folks who sent me emails about the Caldor Tribute Bronze - you energize me and keep me believing I can make it happen! I'll add quick updates as the work progresses.
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