What we do right

May

It’s an odd time for a good conversation, but we make do with what we’ve got. Anyway, who says two people can’t talk philosophy while one is changing the other’s brief?
“So, I’m guessing you have cleaned up a lot of dead people?” Mrs. G remarks conversationally.
“It’s called postmortem care,” I reply.
Mrs. G rolls her eyes. “My dear, sometimes it’s more offensive to try to sweeten the ugly things. Postmortem means after death, correct? So it’s just saying you’ve cleaned up a dead person in Latin.”
I laugh as I pull out another wipe. Her body might be going downhill these last few months, but her mind is still sharp. I enjoy talking to her and hearing her perspective on things; she is a very intelligent person with a gift for articulation. And plain speaking. She hates to sugarcoat anything.
“Okay,” I say. “Yes, I’ve cleaned up quite a few of my residents who have passed.”
“Died.”
“Died,” I sigh. “Maybe it is sugarcoating, Mrs. G, but that sure is a blunt way to phrase it. Not everybody is as comfortable with the blunt truth as you.”
She continues as if she hasn’t heard me. “So everyone who dies here, you’ll do postmortem? Does it bother you?”
“Not me personally, no,” I reply. “Despite appearances, I don’t work here 24/7. But if it’s on my shift, yeah, I’ll do it, so no, I guess I don’t mind. It’s a good way to say goodbye. Oh, and not everyone passes here, Mrs. G. Some people have full code status, so they’ll get sent out if things start looking bad.”
“So Full codes, they do their dying in the hospital?” Mrs. G asks.
“I guess that’s one way to put it,” I reply.
Mrs. G is quiet for a long moment…I can almost hear her thinking as I finish changing her. I arrange the blankets around her, Mrs. G reaches out and grabs my hand.
“I’m a full code, aren’t I?” It feel more like a statement than a question, but I answer it anyway with a nod. Despite the previous question, her next one catches me completely off-balance.
“How do you change that?”
“How do you change your status from full code to DNR?” I ask.
“Obviously,” she says drily, shooting me a chastising look. “And quit looking so anguished, would you? I have a perfect right to discuss my own mortality. Don’t be squeamish.”
She says “squeamish” like most people say curse words. I chuckle. It’s more a nervous exhalation than a humorous outburst and I can tell she’s not fooled.
“I think most people are squeamish about death and mortality, Mrs. G,” I say. “Especially that of a friend’s. But to answer your question, I think that requires a meeting with management and your family.”
“Well, how do you get that set up?” she demands.
“I guess you talk to the nurse…”
“Go get her.”
“Right now?”
“I don’t know. That depends on how good your memory is today. Are you going to forget to do it before you go home, like you forgot my soda the other day?”
“Trust me,” I say fervently, “this conversation is a lot more memorable than a drink request. What’s going on, Mrs. G? Why…why is this such a rush?”
“Because I’ve just had an epiphany listening to you talk,” she says gently. “I only signed the full code paper because it’s what my daughter wanted. Always had trouble letting go, my daughter. But I’m dying now, whatever she thinks, and I think it ought to be my decision where I die, don’t you? And I don’t want to die in a hospital surrounded by strangers. I want to die at home.”

Mrs. G was a prickly-pear sort of person: one blunt, tough costumer, a bull in a china shop. It was hard for her to get to know people–harder still for her to let others in. Most people, it seemed, were driven off by her prickly demeanor. When her body began failing her, it only reinforced those stand-off-ish habits.
I thought, when I first met her, that she was going to be one of “those” residents.
She wasn’t. She decided that the nursing home was her home and that most of the staff were her friends. We didn’t have a choice in the matter after that! When she died, a few months after our conversation, it was surrounded by good friends…even though she’d only found us there at the end.

And we did this. Overwhelmed in a broken system though we are, we still made Mrs. G feel safe and valued enough to trust us with her at her most vulnerable.

A life spent caring for others can never truly be called wasted. I certainly could have done something different with my life–something that brought me a bigger paycheck–but I could never do anything “better” with myself.
Not better, but different. Important in a different way.
But I didn’t. I chose this career, this important job, this path. It’s far from perfect and the system is stacked against us…all this is true, but I try not to lose sight of what we do right.
We did right by Mrs. G.

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