“Does THIS look better to you?!” she raged, pointing to her leg, “It’s supposed to be ELEVATED. Does this look elevated?”
I smiled weakly, made a note: The lady in room 15 is not up for small talk.
On Friday night, Sept. 16, 2016, I fractured my left femur just above Elmo, my replacement knee. I lived in a wheelchair, facing hip-high amputation of my left leg, for about two years while I fought health care bureaucracy, cost-conscious HMOs, and myself to figure out a way to walk again. (Spoiler alert: Elmo won!)
I documented my adventures in remobilization in this blog. They’re awfully self-indulgent, occasionally icky, and probably only of interest to me, but on the off-chance that they help someone else with a catastrophic injury, I’m keeping them together here. If you don’t want to read them, that’s OK; I still love you. If you do, you might want to start from the beginning, on the archive page that lists all posts.
Room 15 arrived at The Fortress the day after my admission, looking small, pained, and bewildered. I’ve worn that post-surgical they-didn’t-say-it-would-be-THIS-bad look myself; she had my sympathy.
Today she’s finally wheeled to her doorway, looking out into the hall. I’d given her a cheery “Hey, you look much better!” and she’d cut loose on me, eyes narrowed to angry pinpoints.
The Fortress is a post-acute care facility, a halfway house for the medically challenged. Its residents have healed past the point of hospital-acute, but aren’t stable enough to go home.
Their average age is well into the 80s; many have one or more catastrophic health issues that will keep them from ever going home. Their family and social workers fret and fuss and cajole, talking assisted living and “rest homes.”
That, apparently, was to be Room 15’s fate, and she resented the hell out of it. My room was right across the hall, and the words that had floated out of her room into mine told the story: 98 years old, busted hip, possible blood clot, terrified family.
She didn’t want their quiet pleading. “You don’t TRUST me anymore,” she’d say bitterly, “I’ve taken care of you all your lives, and now you throw me away.”
How do you put a positive spin on catastrophe?
I’m a fine one to talk; I’m at the opposite end of the catastrophic spectrum; I’m going home. I time my wheel-butted self racing down the halls, do my exercises, plan for my homecoming. I’m not facing end-of-life decisions with a bad heart, sticky valves, invading clots, tumors, and a fading mind.
Kinda makes you feel guilty, in a place like this.
Not kidding; if you ever start feeling sorry for yourself, head right down to the nearest post-acute care center and walk the halls.* In ten minutes, your good-luck meter will swing firmly to the green.
But…this is DISCHARGE MORNING: I’M GOING HOME!!! I wheel my last victory run around the building and when I return, the doctor’s with Room 15.
“Let’s find a more comfortable way to elevate your leg,” she says, reaching for the wheelchair’s leg rest, “Why don’t we put a pillow underneath?”
Room 15 yanks her chair back, out of the doctor’s grasp, and glares.
In for a penny…I take a chance, wheel up alongside them.
“Excuse me, but this works pretty well for me,” I say, pointing to the leg rest that Mom and I cobbled together, “You just get a piece of hardboard and some foam and cut out a place for your heel…it makes a custom padded leg rest you can strap to your chair. MUCH more comfortable…”
“That’s pretty clever,” smiles the beleaguered doc, “Mind if I take a picture?” She does, and escapes to the next patient.
Room 15 looks at my homemade cushion. “I can’t make that, I’m stuck in this place without tools.” And she starts to cry, big, wet tears tracing the velvety-fine lines in her cheeks.
“I hate this place,” she sobs, “My own children think I’m useless; they want to shut me up forever. I medicated them all their lives, but now they tell me I’m too senile to take a pill!”
“And THIS place makes me look like a bag lady,” she says angrily, gesturing at her head, “They took me down to the dining room like THIS. No makeup, nobody combed my hair…”
“Can’t you comb it yourself?” I ask reasonably, “You have beautiful hair.” (She does, that shimmering grey of vintage natural blonde, in a full, thick bob.)
“How? You think they give out combs here?”
“Wait right there!” I cry, racing to my room. I grab my wide-toothed comb, the purple one with the fat handle, and wheel back, pushing it into her hand. “Now comb your hair! No excuses!”
The tears stop and she stares at that comb like a dog at a butcher sthop “Can I buy this comb from you? How much?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I have dozens of combs. Keep it. I’m Cynthia, BTW…”
“Marjorie,” she says, tentatively extending a hand.
Suddenly, I’m slammed, nearly overwhelmed, with deja vu. I KNOW this story. I WAS this story.
“The way you fix this,” I begin slowly, clasping her hand in mine, “Is to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.”
Six months ago, I was Room 15. Terrified, angry that I’d gone from independent to helpless in a single moment.
I called it Meltdown, and a physical therapist brought me back by shifting my perspective to problem-solving.
It was time to pay it forward.
“Marjorie,” I say firmly, “You can comb your own hair. You can CONTROL the way you look. Do you have your makeup with you?”
“Some,” she admits, and stops, “Yes, I don’t need help to put on makeup.”
You can see, literally see, the light dawn in her eyes.
“That’s something you CAN control. I learned to be independent by finding those things, and taking charge of them,” I say.
“Well, even if I comb my hair, it’s too long, it needs to be washed.” At The Fortress, showers are a weekly event; many of the residents are too fragile for more. “I just feel dirty all the time.”
“OK, that’s a good one. Do you know how to use a washcloth? They’ll give you washcloths and towels. Can you get to the sink? I’m in a wheelchair too, and I can get to the sink. That way you don’t have to beg for a shower.”
“Yes,” she says, thinking, “I can wash myself in between showers. I might need help with the leg. My hair, though…it’s too long to wash that way.”
“So cut it short,” I say, “I used to wear mine just as long as yours, but the last time I was here I got the hairdresser to cut it short, only an inch long. I can wash it with a washcloth now, anytime I want. Even when it’s dirty, it’s out of my face.”
“Short,” she nods, “I like your hair, it’s attractive. Short. Yes.”
“Hair grows,” I hope I’m not getting preachy, “The big thing is knowing what’s important: Getting better. Letting go of the stuff that isn’t about your first priority: Healing.”
“My son, he’s good with his hands,” she says, enthusiasm growing, “His wife can sew, she makes clothes for my four beautiful granddaughters. They could make me a leg rest like yours. They could make me a pouch for this wheelchair so I can carry my book…”
“Exactly!” I beam, “Those things you CAN do, you don’t have to beg and wait for someone. You can wheel up and down the halls like me. Do exercises in your room. Learn a new language. Lots of things.”
(OK, so this is a condensed version of a conversation that took maybe an hour and was nowhere near this perky. Tears on both sides…but since I’m not writing War and Peace here…)
She smiles. “You’re right, I’ve been silly. My son, he had the best job, lost it in the recession, but he didn’t sit there crying; he learned to drive a truck. And then he wanted to be with his family, so he gave that up to drive a schoolbus in Portland.”
“They love me so much, I know,” she says, “I need to stop giving them such a hard time. Start planning.”
The nurse is summoning me for discharge paperwork, so I say goodbye to Marjorie. She leans forward for a goodbye hug then sits back, thinking hard.
When I finally leave The Fortress, Marjorie’s wheeled herself down the hall to speak to Room 22.
“What you must do,” she tells him, “Is take charge. What can you manage on your own…”
*OK, don’t REALLY do this; you’ll probably get arrested for trespass or something.