We have a new resident. She arrived, along with whispers that she caused havoc at her last facility. It’s true enough that that’s how a lot of folks come into my path, but I tend not to believe anything in this field unless I witness it first hand. Besides, it’s unfair to have to enter a new living environment branded with rumors.
“She will be moving into room 209,” we were informed about thirty minutes before she arrived. My hall partner and I met eyes, and I knew that her incredulous expression mirrored my own. Thirty minutes to explain to a woman living with severe mental illness that, after YEARS of having a room to herself, she was going to have a roommate. Thirty minutes to consolidate a massive hodgepodge into one tiny closet, two bureau drawers and one nightstand.
I wasn’t sure whether the powers that be were so obtuse that they didn’t realize how difficult this would be for all involved or they simply didn’t care. Either way, it didn’t really matter. The situation was what it was and we had to make the most of it. We did the best we could to make the room feel a little more in inviting and while she was not onboard with the idea of sharing her room, my resident handled it better than I expected.
The first thing I noticed, when our new resident arrived was that she looked very scared and very sad. The next thing I noticed was that she didn’t speak English. At all. She is from the Middle East. My few years of rusty, hazy Spanish in high school would be of no help at all. Awesome. And by “awesome”, I mean impossible. At least, that’s how I felt until I remembered that I don’t put much stock in the concept of impossibility.
I comforted her as best I could, smiling until my cheeks ached because I know that a smile can say what words cannot. I left that shift determined to come back the next day armed with information to better communicate with my new friend and to put her at ease.
The next morning, my boss pulled me aside to “warn” me that our new resident can be “mean”. For a moment, I felt a such a deep anger and sadness that I literally had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting,
“SHE IS NOT MEAN, you idiot! She is living with mental illness, thrown into an entirely new environment with complete strangers from a different culture with no ability to express her needs, feelings or fears. She’s terrified and she feels helpless. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”…pause, Alice. She means well, she’s just not the brightest bulb. She lacks insight. Refocus.
As it turns out, kindness and patience is a universal language. Those of us on the floor managed pretty well with a combination of reassurance and charades. Before the week ended, we had worked out a few hand signals.
Our new resident has turned out to be affectionate and cooperative. When she inevitably would become frustrated, redirection and a comforting hug did wonders to sooth her. And, as it turned out, she DOES know a few words of English. As I was completing my last round, I went in to check on her. She was sleeping and her blanket had fallen to the floor. As I picked it up and tucked it around her, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it, and said in almost a whisper, “Thank you. Love you.” My breath caught in my throat as tears sprang to my eyes.
In that moment, I forgot the lousy wages. I forgot the lack of leadership from the office and caregivers who don’t care, the aching muscles and underlying frustrations. I forgot the broken system, the sometimes broken Alice. I was able to bring this woman one moment of peace. She is able to give my life meaning. In that moment, I remembered with pitch perfect clarity why I choose to do what I do.