He was a small man, around 5 feet 5 inches tall, 120 pounds at most. As he walked down the halls using his cane, he’d have a grim expression on his face. He’d knit his eyebrows together as if he were intently concentrating on each new step he faced. Wherever he was going, he was determined. He took quick, confident steps on weak, unsteady legs, and as a result, no more than a few feet away, there was always a nurse aid or nurse chasing after him.
During mealtime, while waiting for his tray, he’d sit in his seat and stare ahead intently, every once in a while finding something interesting to follow with his eyes.
I’d go up to him and smile really big and cheerfully say “Hey, Mr. C!” [name has been shortened to C for confidentiality purposes]. His expression would immediately brighten, then.
“Hey, baby.” was his usual reply. He’d smile real big and start shuffling around in his pocket, pulling out his wallet.
“How much do I owe you?” He’d ask , as he opened his wallet and took out one dollar bills.
“No, no, Mr.C. Dinner’s free. You don’t need to pay!” I’d tell him, as I had done so many times before. He’d laugh to himself and put his wallet away.
It wasn’t long until he fell, and was sent out to a behavioral hospital for his dementia and increased behavioral problems. They kept him for a few weeks to evaluate his medicine and behavior. Meanwhile, his wife was admitted to the facility at the end of the hall. She was a petite woman who stayed in bed due to bad arthritis in her legs. The right side of her face was decorated a dark purple color of bruises, with a large knot on her forehead.
“Who did this to me?” She would ask me when I would see her. It didn’t take long for me to realize the abuser. At the nurses station there were signs everywhere saying her son was not allowed in the facility for any reason. Soon, Mrs.C started to remember what happened. She’d sit in bed and tell me how she couldn’t understand why her son would do this to her. I would just listen to her as she vented; the answers to her questions beyond my grasp.
When Mr.C came back from the mental hospital, there was a significant change in him. His speech was inappropriate and sometimes incoherent aside from the profanity he insisted on using. He was in a wheelchair now, but he was constantly trying to stand up, though he was weak. He was increasingly violent, smacking and grabbing at people who told him something he didn’t like. His behavior was unpredictable, and constantly a problem.
One night, I remember his behavior being so out-of-hand that I had to sit him next to me at the nurses station while I did my paperwork for the night. To keep him occupied, we gave him some sheets and towels to fold, hoping his former career as an owner of a cleaners would help us to keep him in line. When that grew stale and he continued to try to get out of his wheelchair, one of the nurse assistants asked Mr.C if he danced.
“Oh, yeah.” he said with a smile, his mouth dripping with saliva from his psych medicines.
“C’mon. Dance with me.” she told him, fully aware that he wasn’t going to stay in his chair. She helped him to his feet and put one of his hands on her waist and held his other hand. One of the nurses turned on a Katy Perry song, and I looked at her like she was crazy. How in the world are they going to dance to this? But sure enough, Mr.C started moving his legs and dancing (quite well) with the nurse aid. He hummed along and smiled at her as they moved back and forth. Droplets of saliva fell from his mouth and glistened on the floor, but despite it all, it was a truly beautiful moment.
For as long as I live, I will always remember that moment.
A month or two later, as predicted, Mr.C fell once again, and was once again sent out to a hospital to assess his mental and behavioral problems from his dementia, and see what medications could help him to stay calm and safe. When he came back, he was only a shadow of the shadow of the person he was.
He couldn’t walk at all. He’d try to get out of the wheelchair, but would only have the strength to raise himself to a standing position, then sit again. He was constantly doing this routine, three or four times in a five minute time period. His speech was consistently incoherent, with no real words being said, just mumbling.
I would say my usual “Hey, Mr.C!”, but there was no “Hey, baby.” He’d look at me as if he could see right through me, giving no indication he knew me or he cared. I was talking to a wall.
One evening after dinner I brought Mr.C into his wife’s room for a visit, since she always asked about him. I parked his wheelchair on the side of her bed and tried to encourage him to talk.
“Hey sweetheart. How you doing?” She said to him, smiling at him.
“Mr.C, its your wife. Your wife is saying hi.” I told him. He mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and Mrs.C looked to me for interpretation, not making out any of her husband’s words.
She tried a different approach. Opening a pack of vanilla wafers, she handed one to him and said “Here, Honey.”
He promptly ate it, and many more in the 10 minutes we visited. I felt so sad and disappointed that he wasn’t oriented enough to hold a simple conversation with his wife, but thinking back to that day, there were no indications of those feelings in Mrs.C. She thanked me for bringing him, and seemed so happy just to see him and make sure he was physically okay.
Not long after that, about a week ago, I could see something was different. Mr.C, usually active, alert, and sometimes combative, was in his chair in the dining hall slumped over, his face on the table as if kissing it. His vital signs were all okay, but his behavior seemed totally out of character. When it was time for me to feed him his medicine, it was hard getting his muscles to relax to set him back in his wheelchair. The whole day, wherever he went, he was slumped over. That night, in his room Mr.C leaned to far forward in his chair fell headfirst onto his bed.
I was scared. He had fallen at least a dozen times in his history, due to his restlessness, but this one seemed different. He was asleep before he fell, and he fell right back to sleep after he fell. It was as if nothing happened, though he fell quite hard.
His vital signs proved to be fine, so the doctor decided not to send him out to the hospital, just to monitor him.
Two days later Mr.C died.
That Friday, I visited Mrs.C to see how she was doing. The first thing she said was “You know, my husband died. 65 years, we were married.” Then, she looked me straight in the eye and asked me
“Have you ever heard of someone wearing a housecoat to a funeral?”
I was confused for a moment. Why would you want to wear a housecoat to your husband’s funeral? Then I understood; that’s all she had.
“It’ll all work out, Mrs.C.” I told her, “They’ll find you something to wear.”
Sure enough, Monday morning, the day of the funeral, Mrs.C was in the beauty shop getting her hair done with a beautiful black and white outfit hanging up in front of her.
“Look at what my daughter got for me!” she said, her eyes bright.
She looked beautiful for her husbands funeral. Later, she told me people wondered why she wasn’t crying at the funeral.
“I do my crying at night in my bed.” she told me. I just hugged her and let her talk.
It’s truly a beautiful and life-changing experience to be a nurse. You see the lowest, rawest, most intimate, and most delicate moments of your patient’s lives, and can ultimately influence their lives or help them find a solution to their problems. I know I wasn’t anyone truly special to either Mr. or Mrs.C, but being in their lives, even if it it for only a few hours a day makes me feel accomplished. I did my best to make Mr.C’s last days as enjoyable as possible in his state, and I hope to do the same for his wife, and the thousands of other patients I will care for in my career. As long as the system is sighing and groaning over the sad state of this world, I will be here doing my best to touch lives in all aspects of my life.
Note: illustrated picture copyright PSA