Author Archives: Yang

What I Can

 

 

Rose

 

Old People’s Home
– W.H. Aulden

All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage. The elite can dress and decent themselves,
  are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
  easy sonatas. (Yet, perhaps their very
carnal freedom is their spirit’s bane: intelligent
  of what has happened and why, they are obnoxious
to a glum beyond tears.) Then come those on wheels, the average
  majority, who endure T.V. and, led by
lenient therapists, do community-singing, then
  the loners, muttering in Limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as improvident,
  unspeakable, impeccable as the plants
they parody. (Plants may sweat profusely but never
  sully themselves.) One tie, though, unites them: all
appeared when the world, though much was awry there, was more
  spacious, more comely to look at, it’s Old Ones
with an audience and secular station. Then a child,
  in dismay with Mamma, could refuge with Gran
to be revalued and told a story. As of now,
  we all know what to expect, but their generation
is the first to fade like this, not at home but assigned
  to a numbered frequent ward, stowed out of conscience
as unpopular luggage.

As I ride the subway
  to spend half-an-hour with one, I revisage
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her hey-day,
  when week-end visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work. Am I cold to wish for a speedy
  painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?

The poem that Lynn shared in her post a couple of weeks ago inspired me to start looking at poetry again.  This one in particular really spoke to me today.  The lines of this poem match up with the faces in my head.  I think that’s why I like it so much.  It puts into words something that I’ve never been sure how to verbalize- how do I help people who’ve lost so much?  Each line brings to mind a resident to match it. 

Mrs. E- a stroke took her sight, and old age took her strength.  Every time I help her with a shower, she apologizes for taking up so much of my time.  Mrs. A doesn’t like my help- her mind is going, but while she still has her body she wants me to know it.  Whenever I forget, she’s quick to remind me, “I can do it.”

A resident whose name I can’t remember anymore.  “Would you like to go to Happy Hour?”  A blank stare at the wall- no.  “Would you like to watch some TV then?”  An eye roll and a shrug- yes.  I turn the TV on, and change it to the channel she asks for.  I’d like to stay and cheer her up.  But I have two call lights going off, and a shower to give before dinner.  The stare has been transferred from the wall to the TV.

Mrs. F.  I like to think that she and I have a bond- she might be losing most of her function, but her sense of humor is still intact.  After dinner she leaves to round the building in her wheelchair, and I let her go.  It’s better than keeping her cooped up on the hall with nothing to do. 

The geri-chair group on the Skilled unit.  After dinner, we group them around the TV until we can put them to bed.  Mrs. W sits and watches the TV, and next to her Mrs. K mutters nonsense, the same phrases repeated over and over.

Sometimes I find myself forgetting that they used to be different.  I’ve only known them like this, and in a way, I guess that makes it easier?  I don’t have to remember, to look at their faces and see what used to be.  But if I pay attention, I can see glimpses that still shine through.

Mr. J used to be a farmer and every once in a while he’ll tell me he can’t go to bed because he needs to check on the cows.  Mrs. F isn’t the person she used to be, but she absolutely lights up every Thursday evening when her grandson visits.  It’s the longest I’ve ever seen her sit in one place without getting bored.

Mrs. V used to let me practice my Spanish with her, before she stopped walking down to the dining room.  Mrs. M likes to chat about crime shows.  Mr. B likes to discuss logic and human nature. 

They’re still there.  Behind the eyes of each of my residents sits a person trying to hold onto what’s left of their life.  I find it hard to deal with, and I get to go home at the end of the shift.  They don’t.  If I’m burnt out, I can’t imagine how they must feel.

My favorite quote comes from the book Unwind by Neal Shusterman.  The book itself has nothing to do with long term care, but this one quote has always stuck with me- “Love the ones you can.  Pray for the rest.”  I’m trying to make this my work philosophy.  Each day, I am given a group of people to care for, and for that day, they are mine to love.  I can’t do everything.  I can’t make legs work or memories come back or pain go away.  But I can smile.  I can listen.  I can look and actually SEE.  I might not be able to do everything, I can do SOMETHING.  And then I can go home and pray about the rest of it. 

 

Claire’s Training Exercises

 

Bob Goddard

As I shared in my last post, our granddaughter, Claire, was born without the fibers that connect the two sides of her brain. This birth defect, called Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum (ACC), has resulted in delays in all major categories of Claire’s development.

For the past few months, we’ve been meeting every Friday with an Occupational Therapist from a program called Early On.  During these in-home sessions, we track Claire progress and work with her on developing her gross motor, fine motor, cognitive, and social skills. In the process, the OTR has instructed us in a number of training exercises that address Claire’s deficits. This early training is crucial in Claire’s treatment and it could have a significant impact on the quality of her life. I’ll have more to say about the Early On program in future posts.

For now, I simply want to list some of the exercises we’ve been doing, just to provide an idea what of the training involves. Claire is weak on her right side and she has a tendency to arch her back as means of movement. If not addressed, these issues could result in major physical problems down the road and much of what we do is to correct them. We don’t do all of these every single day, but we do try to fit in as much as Claire can tolerate and the day allows. Right now, I do not fully grasp how these exercises work as whole, but this is something I hope to learn and I’ll share what I discover going forward.

The following mostly involve gross motor functions and I’ll cover other kinds of exercises in future posts. Also, in the coming months I hope to have more photos and videos to help illustrate our efforts. I made up the names of many of the specific exercises, just so they’re easier for me to remember.

1.       Overhead Reacher: we place Claire on her back with the toys suspended directly over her face as shown below. This encourages her to reach upward with both arms and thus helps in developing her pectoral muscles. She tends to squirm out of position, so our role is basically to adjust as necessary.

2.       The 360: while Claire lays on her stomach, we rock her hips back and forth with an emphasis on flexing her hip on the side she is reaching and moving towards. We place toys in the direction toward which she is pivoting and encourage her to reach for them. We do a full circle in both directions.

3.       The 45: while either sitting on the floor or standing, we hold Claire at a 45 degree angle with her head on our left and facing out. It can also be done standing. This helps strengthens the muscles on her right side.

4.       Just Sitting: while we sit on the floor, we place Claire on her rear, directly in front of us, either facing toward us or away. We use one of our hands to anchor her where her upper thigh meets her hip and we use the other hand to keep her from flopping to one side or the other. We place toys directly in front of her to keep her focus and balance forward, and to discourage arching.

5.       To the Floor: instead of placing Claire directly on the floor, we sit with her in our lap on her belly and transition her to the floor over the outside leg and allow her to reach her hands to the floor and encourage her to “walk” on her hands forward until her entire body is on the floor. This is a kind of simulated crawling and gets her accustomed to using her arms and hands for mobility. 

6.       Rolling: just what the name implies, rolling from her stomach to her back and vice versa. We practice more to the right side. We also discourage back arching as a means to turn over. We place toys (and interesting people!) in positions that draw her attention toward her trunk area and thus encourage her to keep her chin tucked when she rolls.  

7.       Side Hold: while lying on the floor on her side, especially her right side, we place a hand on her hip and prevent her from turning either way. As in rolling, we encourage her to keep her chin tucked.

8.       Toys on Toes: while lying her back, we dangle toys on her feet and thus she performs a kind of “crunches” exercise when reaching for them.

9.       The Red Chair: as shown below, we place Claire in the chair, sitting at 90 degree angle and play games with her. One of the ideas here is to get her accustomed to the sensation of having her feet on the floor. In the coming weeks we hope to replace the red chair with a pediatric corner chair that will help with Claire’s postural control of her head, neck and trunk. This chair comes with a tray so that she’ll be able to engage in other activities while sitting in it.  

In all of this, we watch for progress and not developmental deadlines. The antidote to discouragement is action and so we focus on the day to day routine and let the big picture take care of itself.

Claire

 

 

Bob Goddard

My granddaughter was born with a brain disorder called Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum (ACC). In short, she lacks the nerve fibers that connect the two sides of her brain and allows the two hemispheres to communicate. The absence of these fibers has an impact on every aspect of her development.

Claire will be a year old at the end of April. She’s about three months behind in most developmental milestones. For example, she is still unable to sit unsupported, a task usually accomplished at around 7 to 8 months. While she’s making progress, it’s been slow and uneven. On the plus side, Claire loves to interact with people, takes interest in the environment around her, and her sweet smile lights up the room wherever she goes.

ACC is a birth defect that has no single cause and has no cure. It can be accompanied by other genetic abnormalities or medical conditions, and is often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed altogether. However with the more common use of neuro-imaging techniques, such as MRI, there has been an increased rate of diagnosis. While ACC typically produces symptoms during the first two years of life, in mild cases discernible symptoms may not appear until later in life. In these cases the disorder presents primarily as a social deficit, such as difficulty in reading body language or understanding social cues.

We are not sure where Claire is going to end up in terms of her development. What we do know is that early diagnosis and intervention are key to treatment. So while there is no cure, we are not helpless and we know that what we do now can have a huge impact on the quality of her life later. While we cannot save Claire from the challenges presented by her deficit, we can minimize those challenges and equip her to better face them.

During the week, I am Claire’s primary care provider while her parents, my daughter Hiliary and son-in-law Andy, are working. After her maternity leave ran out, Hiliary tried other care arrangements for Claire, including a standard day care situation and then in-home care. But nothing worked. Claire was very difficult to feed and she was not growing. She was seriously at risk and there was even some talk of inserting a feeding tube. Since I was already watching their four-year old, our granddaughter Aubrey, in the afternoons after school, Hiliary asked if I could take Claire as well while they figured out what to do.

On CNA Edge, we’ve talked about how the skills and life lessons we’ve learned as caregivers in a long term care setting can be applicable to other aspects of our lives. My experience taking care of my granddaughters is a perfect and on-going example of that. I’ve always enjoyed spending time with my grandkids, but this is another level, particularly so given Claire’s needs. What I discovered is that not only am I capable of handling this new responsibility, I love doing it.

Much of how I experience a typical day with Claire and Aubrey parallels my thirty-five years’ experience in LTC. Those years conditioned me to be acutely aware of how time is used in a care situation: the need to organize it on the fly, to improvise and prioritize, to be efficient without being impatient, and to focus on the task at hand while simultaneously thinking ahead. This is crucial when it comes to Claire because I have to solve this daily time puzzle in a way that creates islands of time where I can focus specifically on her training.

Just as we sought to emotionally engage our elders in LTC during routine care tasks, I know that I must continually infuse the daily routine with habits that enhance Claire’s development. This includes simple things such holding her in my right arm instead of my left. Diaper change doubles as peek-a-boo time. Almost every mundane activity or movement is accompanied by a verbal cue: “light on,” “light off,” “down we go,” “uuuuup!”  This purposeful way of doing things requires a kind of multi-level multi-tasking, a skill common to seasoned LTC caregivers.

Also, while there is a sense of urgency here, my years as a LTC caregiver taught me how to pace myself emotionally, to be in it for the long haul. I know not to be too hard on myself when my energy fades or I lose focus, and I know there will be times when I will feel like I haven’t done all that should be possible. I know that a care routine can sometimes be a grind and that periods of discouragement and even boredom are natural – and that they are temporary. And last, but certainly not least, those thirty-five years have provided me with the awareness and expectation – and appreciation – of those singular moments which give meaning beyond the basic necessities of providing care and are so vital to sustaining one’s spirit. Of course, with my granddaughters, these moments come easy and often.

For the next several months, my posts on CNA Edge are going to be a combination of a chronicle of Claire’s progress, a look at ACC and child development, and an introspective relating what I am experiencing, not just as a grandfather, but also from a caregiver’s perspective. Already the experience has reinforced my belief that there are certain aspects of caregiving that are universal and that this wider definition may be of some use.

Time Marches On

 

 

Lynn

One of the things I like about working in Long Term Care (LTC) is the relationships we develop with residents over time. We get to know our residents almost as well as we know our own families, sometimes even better than we know our own families.  This is also one of the things I don’t like about working in LTC.  After Death takes a resident and an empty space is all that is left.  The resident’s bed is empty, where they used to sit in the dining room is empty; there is a sense of emptiness throughout the building and that emptiness can be deafening.

The worst part of a death is the silence that accompanies the emptiness. Their names aren’t mentioned in the daily reports and are removed from the care lists. Their special dietary slips aren’t printed anymore. The name on the door is gone. Their old pictures and cards are missing from the walls of their room.  Their chart is put into storage. The existence of that person is wiped away from the white board of LTC life.

There is a poem called “Funeral Blues” written by W.H. Auden.  The first line of the first stanza comes to mind when that special person leaves with Death: “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.” I desperately want the clocks to stop and the phone to stop ringing.  I want time to stand still for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour.  I want to stop moving, to stop marching forward with time and grieve over the awful silent void left by my special resident’s departure.  But clocks don’t stop. Phones keep ringing because the living can’t wait and time marches on.  

Funeral Blues 
W. H. Auden
 
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, 
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West.
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. 

 

What do you do for a Living?

 

Lynn

The other day I was in a resident’s room getting ready to administer a nebulizer treatment.  Her TV was turned to the Game Show Channel with “Family Feud” going on.   My fellow care givers can attest “Family Feud” is a staple in the LTC environment with Turner Classic Movies a close second.  You can’t walk down a hall without hearing at least 3 different versions of “Family Feud” blaring out of multiple residents’ rooms. 

It was the beginning of the show where the host, Steve Harvey, has each of the family members introduce themselves before they provide an answer to the question he is asking. I wasn’t paying much attention to the show as I am busy getting the treatment ready and assessing my resident’s shortness of breath.  I am vaguely aware of Steve Harvey talking to the first three family members.  I didn’t hear their names, what they did or the answers to the question.  The fourth family member made me stop and look at the TV screen.   I half heard Steve Harvey ask her, “What do you do for a living?”  It is difficult to explain the fullness of what happened next.

She said, “I am a CNA at a long term care facility.”  It wasn’t the words she spoke as much as her tone of voice that made me whip my head around to look at her.  I see and hear so many CNAs when asked what their occupation is a sort of apology tends to follow.  “I’m a CNA but I plan on (insert a perceived better career choice here)…” or “I work as a CNA while I figure out what I want to do.”  The body language that accompanies those statements relays uncertainty, self-consciousness, and/or humility.  

This woman on that game show was different.  Those brief seconds she was on the TV screen showed a confident woman who was proud of her career choice, proud to be a CNA.  Everything about her body language supported the self-assured tone of voice in which she spoke those words.   “I am a CNA at a long term care facility.” End of sentence.  The words “courageous”, “bold”, “empowering”, and “confident” all ran through my brain in those few precious seconds.  She offered no apologies or explanations.  She stood tall, looked Mr. Harvey in the eye and declared her right to be proud of herself, of her career and those in her care.  I am proud of her, too. 

CNAs, be proud of your career choice. Do not ever, not even once, apologize in any way for working as a CNA. Stop feeling like you have to rationalize being a CNA with sentences like “I’m a CNA but…” You don’t have to do that.  Part of changing the LTC environment and other health care settings involves how we speak about ourselves and each other. Talk about your job with pride, with confidence.  What CNAs do is challenging, emotionally rewarding and taxing, sometimes all in the same day.  Not everyone can do the work. It takes a special kind of talent and perseverance to be a CNA for 2 years, 5 years, 15 years.  The more each of you declare with confidence and pride in your voice, “I am a CNA” the more empowered you will become.  The more empowered you are, the more others will want to hear what you have to say. Be bold; declare with confidence your career choice just like that wonderful woman on a popular game show did.  Be confident in yourself. Be proud to be a CNA.  I am proud of you, too.

A Step Backward for Long Term Care

 

 

Yang

Last week, PHI posted the third installment of their 60 Caregiver Issues Campaign. This issue brief highlighted how the Affordable Care Act brought coverage to many caregivers who previously had no healthcare insurance and discussed how proposed changes now before congress could impact the nation’s direct care workforce.  The link to PHI’s report is at the bottom of this post.

It boils down to this: among its many provisions, the ACA included an expansion of Medicaid that benefited the working poor and thus provided healthcare coverage to caregivers who did not previously qualify because they “earned too much.” 

Here are the numbers directly from the PHI brief:

  1. From 2010 to 2014, approximately 500,000 direct care workers nationwide gained health insurance following implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
  2. The uninsured rate decreased 26 percent during the same time frame, from 28 percent to 21 percent.
  3. These coverage gains are primarily attributable to a 30 percent increase in the number of workers insured through Medicaid programs.

The repeal of the ACA threatens this coverage and many caregivers may again find themselves without the means for adequate health care. In a field where workers are at high risk for injuries resulting in musculoskeletal disorders and face the risk of serious infection every day, this lack of healthcare coverage is devastating. It not only leads to higher turnover rates that negatively impact the care of our elderly and disabled, it also reinforces the tendency to view caregivers as short-term workers, an expendable resource that can be used up, disposed of, and replaced.

We cannot properly care for the most vulnerable of our citizenry if we overlook the health and well-being of those who care for them. The two cannot be separated. In a time when the demand for caregivers has reached a crisis, reducing direct workers’ access to adequate health care is an unwise – and unhealthy – step backward.

The PHI report can be found here.

 

 

 

60 Caregiver Issues: Whose Issues Will We Hear?

 

 

Minstrel

In his recent post Yang brought our attention to PHI’s campaign to educate the public about caregiver issues, and gave us a link to their introductory video.  In that video PHI posed these questions:   

1. How can we ensure caregivers get the training they need?

2. How can we keep care affordable to families? 

3. What data is needed to help policyholders take action? 

While these are important questions, if you ask caregivers themselves why some are leaving the field and others wouldn’t think of entering it, they’ll no doubt raise a different set of issues.  At nearly every conference or webinar I attend I ask about staff-to-resident ratios and caregiver wages.  Usually there is no reply, as if I were speaking from some parallel universe and couldn’t be heard.  If there is a reply it’s on the lines of “Yes, we know.  But it’s complicated.  These things take time. You can’t expect things to change overnight.” 

Yes, there is a shortage of caregivers.  And yes, good care isn’t affordable.  In fact good care can’t be bought.  By that I mean whatever you might be paying, either for in-home care ($20/ hour? $40?) or for care in a long-term care home of some sort ($6,000-10,000/ month), the more care the person needs as health declines, the wider the gap between the person’s needs and the quality of care the person actually receives.   

Everyone is selling solutions like workshops and videos and toolkits and new business models to long-term care administrators or home healthcare systems’ owners.  Some groups are advocating on a state or even national level and some gains have been won.  But from the outcomes I’d say that a lot of the effort is wheel-spinning.  (An increase in the NYC minimum wage for home care workers to $15/hour by 2021??)   Today’s aides have rare luck if they earn $15 an hour and have a regular 40-hour work week.  An aide may have six to ten residents/patients to care for, and many of those will suffer from dementia and/or be unable to walk alone safely or even support themselves standing.  (Yes, I know I’m a broken record…)  Do you know what it’s like to try to wash, toilet, transfer these residents several times a shift, and keep them from falling the rest of the time?  (If not, go back and read CNA Edge.)  This is before we even begin to provide enrichment a la ‘person-centered care.’   

I want the whole healthcare industry – including those championing reform — to acknowledge what the biggest issues are for caregivers: our obscenely low wages and our outrageously onerous, even unsafe, working conditions.  These organizations don’t yet tackle caregivers’ most urgent needs: a living wage, safe work conditions, and a work environment that supports person entered care.  We need to ask them, What are you doing about these issues and what can we CNAs do to support you in this?  

When Malcolm X called for a change in Americans’ attitudes on race and was told that such changes (culture change, if you will) take generations, he reminded us of this: At the beginning of World War II Germany became our enemy and Russia became our ally.  But when the war ended we, America, saw Germany as our ally and Russia as our enemy.  That attitude-change didn’t take even one generation.  The healthcare industry needs an attitude adjustment.  It is not okay for long-term care operators or owners of home healthcare agencies to charge exorbitant fees to clients and return a too-small fraction of these fees as wages to their direct-care workers, while management and professional staff and consultants are handsomely compensated.  It is not okay to hire employees unless you train them in the skills they need to work with the elderly frail, starting with English language skills.  It’s not okay for the industry to tolerate poor work ethics: last-minute callouts; texting while on duty; and most of all, failure to interact with residents in a way that says to them “I love being with you.  Thank you for letting me be part of your life.” 

There are thousands of followers of CNA Edge.  As Yang exhorted us, we need to support PHI in their effort to educate the public about caregiver issues.  Let’s ensure that when they frames their 60 Issues, they don’t airbrush our issues out of the picture they’re drawing.

60 Caregiver Issues: PHI and the Caregiver Shortage

 

Yang

Last week, the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI), the leading expert on the nation’s direct care force, launched a two-year online public education effort called “60 Caregiver Issues.” Over the next two years, the campaign will identify 60 policy and practice ideas that can begin to address a problem that we, as CNAs, are all too familiar with: the growing shortage in direct care workers.

The first installment, “8 Signs the Shortage in Paid Caregivers is Getting Worse” can be found here.

The purpose of the campaign is to focus public attention on the problem and offer some real solutions. CNAs have a vital role to play in this effort. No one has greater awareness than we do of how chronic understaffing and turnover rates actually impact the care and well-being of individual residents on a day to day basis. We know what it looks like and we know what it feels like to our residents in a very real way. By sharing our real-life work experiences we can offer a perspective that gives these problems texture and a real sense of the human cost.

As advocates for our residents – and for ourselves – CNAs can become part of the solution by joining and supporting PHI in this effort. In the coming months, CNA Edge will share posts from the PHI campaign and, of course, we will offer our own take on the issues surrounding the nation’s caregiver shortage.

To kick off the campaign, PHI offers this 60 second video which highlights the problem:  Caregiving Crisis: 5 Million Workers Needed

 

The Caregiver Shortage and Immigration

In reaction to the Trump administration’s recent immigration ban, Lori Porter, founder and CEO of the National Association of Health Care Assistants, pointed out a connection between the immigration issue and LTC staffing levels. In a recent Facebook post, she stated:

“A large percentage of CNAs are from the banned countries. Long Term Care is always testifying before congress for immigration to solve their staffing issue… I know nursing homes in this country who are largely staffed by those affected. Did anyone stop to think about who would care for the residents? Especially in a country who will not come out in sufficient numbers to take care of their own OLD citizens! … I have heard from nursing homes all day who will not have enough CNAs to staff their building because so many CNAs have left out of fear.”

In support of Lori Porter’s assessment, we do know two facts:  that over 50 percent of CNAs leave their jobs every year (PHI Factsheet) and over 20 percent of caregivers in the U.S. were not born in this country (Market Watch).

My concerned is about the vulnerability of caregivers coming into this country on work visas, especially if their legal status is tied to their employment. Since advocating for our elders is such a big part of what we do as caregivers, we need workers who feel secure enough to speak out within the facility and, when appropriate, in the public forum. Sometimes, we are the last line of defense for our residents and if we do not speak, no one will. Too often, incidents and issues that should be dealt with in the open are swept under the rug, mainly out of fear of some form of retaliation.

If Long Term Care is to rely on immigration to solve the caregiver shortage in this country, what kind of protections can we provide these workers so that they feel secure enough to speak out and advocate for our elders when necessary?

 

For Veterans Day

DSC00999

 

Yang

The only time I ever saw my father cry was on Christmas Eve, 1993. On that night, my wife and I invited my parents to go with us to a candlelight service at our church. Toward the end, we lit our candles and sang the final song of the service.  About half way through, I could see the flame on my father’s candle flicker and wave in his trembling hand. His voice cracked as he raised a sleeve to his face to wipe away a tear and he was unable to finish singing. The song was Silent Night. While his reaction was out of character, I had a pretty good idea of what was behind it.

My father was a WWII vet and served with the U.S. Army Air Corp in the Pacific Theatre. He participated in campaigns in New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa before joining the occupation forces after Japan surrendered in September, 1945. As typical of males of his generation, he was somewhat “hard boiled,” tough and not given to displays of sloppy sentimentalism.  Yet, he was affable and charming, and used his gentle sense of humor to make connections with people of all kinds. He was a natural salesman and had a knack of making instant friends with strangers. He loved kids and animals, but had little tolerance for pretentiousness and superficiality in adults.

For over 35 years, I observed this same kind of tough/gentle combination in the personalities of many of the residents at the veteran’s home where I worked as a caregiver. I think there is something about serving your country in wartime that sharpens your appreciation for what really counts in life. It’s difficult for those of us who did not serve to fully comprehend this perspective.

For many of the vets I cared for, the Second World War was the seminal event of their lives and helped define who they became as people. The average age of the U.S. soldier in WWII was 26, the draft age 18. At an age that these young men should have been starting work and families, or going off to college, they instead found themselves far away from home in harsh, lonely, and dangerous places. Unlike the other major combatants in WWII, the U.S. did not rotate troops. If you served overseas in WWII, you stayed overseas for the duration of the war. It’s not hard to believe that extended periods in this kind of environment must have profoundly shaped the lives of these young men in ways that heavily influenced their later life experience. And the wounds they suffered were not always visible.

My father enlisted in December of 1942 at age 19. He was sent to the Pacific in August, 1943 and did not return home until November of 1945. I grew up hearing stories about his time overseas. There were stories of the GI’s relationship with the local natives, the oppressive heat and humidity of the New Guinea jungle, the bugs, the snakes, the dysentery, waiting days on end aboard “that damn LST” before landing on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, of watching P-38’s dogfight with Zeros over Port Moresby, and of befriending Japanese children during his time at Tachikawa Airbase after the surrender. The kids were always the first to come out of hiding.

One story stood out above the rest. It happened on Christmas Eve, 1943. He was on New Guinea where the jungle made a cohesive front line difficult to define. He didn’t know if he would ever see home again, was unsure that he even had a future, and scared.

On that night, he and two of his buddies were assigned to deliver some kind of equipment (I don’t recall exactly what) to a location about an hour and a half walk from their camp. As they crept down the dark jungle path, they would halt every so often and listen for any indications of activity – friendly or otherwise – around them. About three-quarters of an hour into the trip, my father turned around and raised his hands, signaling to his companions to stop.

“Did you hear that?” he whispered.

They hadn’t heard anything. The three men listened in silence for a few moments, but heard nothing more, and they proceeded down the trail.

A short distance later, my father stopped again.

“You must have heard that. It sounds like something clinking.”

This time, all three men heard it. But there was something about this mysterious sound in the jungle that made them more curious than cautious. As they walked on, they began to discern musical notes. Someone was playing some kind of instrument out here in No Man’s Land.

Soon, they saw lights ahead. As they came to a clearing, my father and his buddies beheld a surreal scene, a sight that would be burned into his memory for the rest of his life: there, in the middle of the New Guinea jungle, was the Salvation Army handing out cookies and coffee to homesick soldiers.

My father simply couldn’t believe what he was seeing. But his astonishment soon gave way to a different kind of feeling. This was a tangible taste of home, something marvelously normal in this alien land. The idea that these people would volunteer to come out on this night and subject themselves to the extreme discomfort and very real dangers of this place just to bring him and his comrades a bit of home on Christmas Eve filled him with a feeling that transcended mere gratitude.  

I don’t know if my father ever told us what instruments they were playing. But he never left any doubt what song he and buddies heard as they entered the clearing. It was Silent Night.   

I’m pretty sure that there were other things about his experience in the war that my father felt just as deeply, but that he never shared with us. I did know that, as happens frequently with soldiers in war zones, he developed a very close bond with some of his buddies. And I knew that some of them didn’t make it home.

My father sacrificed his youth to serve his country. And he left a part of himself over there. Later in life, he became active in the DAV and other veterans groups. After his faith and his family, his participation and service in these organizations was the most important thing in his life.

When we take the time to recognize and thank our veterans for their sacrifice and service, it really does mean something.

 

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