The transport ambulance had been 45 minutes late for the 3-hour drive to the convalescent home. And, on top of that, it was raining. Neither of the drivers seemed overly concerned, continually chit-chatting about things that had nothing to do with patient care. It’s a weird, uncomfortable feeling to be lying on a gurney, exposed to the world through the large rear window of an ambulance, a constant flow of heavy traffic first tailgating, then passing you by, as you head-off to what would become your temporary home for the next month. Not really knowing what to expect at this facility. Not knowing what was expected of you. I had been hospital-bedridden for a month up to this point, going from near-death and thoughts marred by hallucinations, to a slightly fuzzy grasp of reality.
We unloaded in the dark at the back of the building, only pole lights to show the way. It certainly didn’t seem an appropriate setting for my Grand Entrance. I was paperwork processed, then wheeled to a bedroom. Again, everything seemed so dark. We had arrived late in the evening, well-past dinner time and all the other patients had been settled-in for the night. My ‘surprise roommate’ was out like the lights and I was reassured by the Nurse that he ‘wouldn’t make a peep until morning’, which struck me as odd. The roommate was indeed a surprise because my insurance had provided for a private room. After I had questioned the room arrangement and some fact checking was completed, I was moved to an equally dreary room, but this one without a living corpse sleeping next to me.
Darlene was the first name that I remembered amongst the staff members whom impacted me during that long month of October. A thirty-something African-American with a constant smile and perpetually positive attitude, she was a large woman, not obese, just big. Both in stature and presence. When I asked about the possibility of getting something to eat after first arriving, she smiled “Dinner was over a long time ago, but let me go see what I can scrape up for ya”. After September’s month’s-worth of restricted hospital food, she returned with a plate of baked ham, scalloped potatoes, and collard greens seasoned with fatback. I’m pretty sure that this meal came from home, the personal food that staff had brought in, because future meals came nowhere close to this delicious dinner.
At this point in my recovery, I could stand on my own and scooch my feet a few steps at a time, but was otherwise restricted to a metal-walker for mobility. After that first day’s long journey, it was such a relief to be lying in a semi-comfortable bed with a belly full of food while watching a little television. But then I felt the urge for a different kind of relief. During the first few days of my stay, a trip to the bathroom meant that a call for assistance was required, not because I wasn’t hard-headed enough to get there, but because the staff freaked out when I removed the different monitoring wires myself. I know this all too well because I tried it several times. It’s not just a male-ego thing, but it’s very humiliating to need and be required to ask for help in doing something so basic. When the monitoring wires were finally done away-with for good, I was free to travel to the bathroom on my own, which presented me with yet another problem. I had been offered multiple times and urged to ask for help during bathroom breaks. There was even an emergency assistance cord at the base of the bathroom’s wall. But my male-ego/personal pride/strong desire for independence wasn’t going to have any part of rational thinking. For any visits that required sitting, I could easily get my butt to the toilet, but even pulling on the towel rack directly in front of me wasn’t getting me back to my feet. So instead of asking a nice person for help, I practiced, somewhat successfully, the art of toilet dive-bombing. It’s very sad (and frustrating) when one of your biggest short-term goals in life is improving your potty technique.
The bathroom was shared with the adjoining room. I never saw or heard from him during our entire four weeks as roommates. Seems that all his bodily wastes were collected with different plastic tubes and bags, I never once saw him leave his room. Before coming to this facility, with its good reputation as a physical rehabilitation center, my foggy brain had images of a Gold’s Gym full of buff, young people recovering from sports-related injuries. I feared being an embarrassment to myself in front of them. Then Darlene asked me a question on the second morning, as I was wheel-chairing my determination over to the therapy room.
“You’re not a lifer, are you?”
The clues were all there, I just hadn’t put them together yet. The patient demographics didn’t include any young, physically fit Gold’s Gym members. At 55, I was a decade or two younger than most of the other residents. For a significant percentage of the residents, this was going to be their very last home, sweet home. Some weren’t aware of it, some didn’t admit it, but a few that I spoke with told me as part of matter-of-fact conversations that ‘this is where I’ll be for the rest of my life”. Being around some of these sad souls had a Death Row-atmosphere type of feeling, but without the protesters outside. And these lifers had done nothing wrong.
For most of my working life I had been, at bare minimum, a semi-professional in a professional world. Rules, regulations, and checklists were a normal part of the old 9-5. Early on during the first week of my stay, I saw two gentlemen pass by my room several times one morning after breakfast. They appeared to be dorky white Professional types, with their clipboards, sense of urgency, and personas that screamed…
“Yes, we are busy (nod)… that’s nice…We’ll get back to see you on that little matter later…we’re a little busy right now.”
Secondly, what struck me as being odd about them was that they both were male. Except for the dish room area in the kitchen which I never saw, there were approximately 4-5 males on the entire payroll, two of which were holding clipboards. The older of the two gentlemen was the newly appointed Director of Operations, and this thorough walk-through was to ensure that everything was ‘ship-shape’. After 900 hundred years spent working in the restaurant industry, one’s ‘eye for detail’ gets honed to the point of obsessive behavior. A few minutes after the guys had excused themselves into my room (“We’ll just be a minute, we’re busy”), I couldn’t keep my observations to myself any longer.
“Hey, why isn’t there a clock in this room?”
“Ooh, good point. Mark, make a note of that, we’ll have maintenance take care of that”
There’s a lot of time to notice things when you’re confined to a bed sixteen hours a day. The high-light of everyday was when Anyone walked into the room. Anyone. I perfected the art of electric bed adjusting within just a few hours. Being an old food guy, I would take a mental note of the time on my new clock as the food carts came rolling down the hallway, and then calculate how long it would take until they were actually served to the rooms. The patients didn’t, but a restaurant would have gone belly-up. Terrible ticket-times. All the metal hooks on my privacy curtain had their little clasp-openings facing in the same direction, except for three in a row, which were annoying me, above my head, to the right, starting at the fourth hook from the wall.
On the way to therapy one morning, at this point still without a clock on the wall, I decided to stop off at Mark’s office and offer another one of my acute observations.
“Sorry to bother you, I’m sure that you’re busy. I can get my wheelchair in-under the hand sink in my room, if I move the trash can. But when I’m brushing my teeth or attempting to shave, all I can see in the mirror is the top of my head.”
Granted, my room had apparently just recently been converted into a patient room, but you’d think there’d be some regulation on the check-list about this. Like a common-sense law.
Priscilla was my Day Nurse that first morning and almost every morning thereafter. She was a short little Black girl with a stereotypical black rear-end and an atypical black first name, which made it easy to remember. She looked nothing like a Presley.
One of the first things that we did that first morning was to decide upon a laundry option for my clothing during my month long stay. Many of the residents sent soiled laundry home with loved ones to get all Downy fresh. Since I didn’t have a loved one within a two-hour drive, we decided on option #2. In-house laundry service. Once a week, my dirty laundry would be taken, then returned two days later. Which concerned me into some quick calculations in my head because I may have had a week’s worth of clothing in my one overnight bag. It was going to take some creative wardrobe design.
Priscilla and I shared turns with a permanent marker, writing my name on my clothes, socks, and underwear so they’d theoretically show back-up in my room each week after laundry day. Like a kid after summer camp, I often dress each day now with clothes permanently marked with my last name, a subtle reminder of where I’ve been and where I’m going.
And so, began my road to recovery.