My lessons at the nursing home

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1990

Compassion, Love, and Patience

I really didn’t have a firm understanding of compassion. Of course, I had practiced it here and there. While working in rural Montana in a small bed facility, I was assigned several people to take care of, get to know and love. It was there I learned the true meaning.

I started after school. The real learning began with training on the job. I learned to care for them physically, the usual daily care routine. I also learned respite care: care of the dying. I preferred those patients the most. They would not get better nor go home. Whether alone or with a loved one, they would die here. Some had no family. I became the closest thing that they would have to a loved one as they transitioned to death.

I was trained by a drill sergeant whom was strict and direct. I can still see her walking down that hallway, making sure she had taken care of everyone and they were in bed. As tough as she was, she was kind and loving. Sarge would always remind me to have empathy, and try to understand what it would be like for me. 

Think about what it would be like to have all freedom denied to you, just because you got old or sick, or dying.

I learned to give last rites, to prepare the body after death. To prepare any family of the death. Also, to talk to the one dying. I remember standing there and saying, “I can’t do this, I can’t.”  Sarge would say, “Oh yes, you can, and you will. Be honest, be brave, and carry on. Not for you, but for them.”

I swear it seemed that everyone there in that small bed nursing home was special. They all had a life, they were once young, had careers, people that they loved. They had a life. Now they were at the end of that life.

Some were ready to die. Most were not. But when faced with the truth of what was happening, they were so amazing in how they dealt with it.

I will never forget Merna (not her real name). The sheriff had brought her to the facility. Merna had been found under the wooden porch on the front of her house; she had been there for days. Her husband had died about a year ago and she lived alone. She was very poor, living only on social security. No family.  

She decided to walk outside to hang up the laundry, just like she had done for so many years. The sheriff said that as she was walking out, she’d fallen over something and could not get up. She lived way out on a tiny dirt county road. Merna still used on old outhouse that was on the property. She crawled under the wooden deck because she couldn’t get up to walk. She had really hurt her hip. 

Merna laid there for 3 nights, in the cold dark and in pain. The only reason someone found her was a man was hunting and heard her screaming. He made his way to the little house, more like a cabin than a house, and found her.

When Merna was brought in, she had already been to the hospital. So, they sent over her things that she’d had on. She was one of mine. I started through her things to see if they needed to be washed, and what didn’t need to be washed was quickly put away as directed by her fingers pointing and some yelling. 

I noticed her bra and panties; I had never seen such things. The bra was made from scraps of fabric, little pieces, and the straps were worn out. The clasp had long been replaced. Still, the bra was beautiful, with all that work, and the different colors were all hand-sewn. The underwear was the same. I didn’t say a word, and asked if I could wash them for her. I found her so pretty, with gentle gray eyes and long white hair, yellowed some at the ends, braided into pigtails.  

I heard her whisper, “I don’t care.”  

My heart just swelled, she was in so much emotional pain. I placed them in the laundry bag with her dress and shoes. The shoes were dirty and filled with newspaper to cover the holes in the bottoms. They were ready to be thrown away. She would just stare out the big window in her room, and not talk much at all. A tear would roll down her face, and I could tell she was at the end of hope.

I understood.

When I got back, I did a full body assessment and talked to her. The orders from the hospital were clear. She needed to eat, extra calories, lots of water and rest. Also, we needed to keep an eye on her feet, as there was some frostbite. Her vitals looked good. She was in her 80’s. I was perplexed.

Merna, after about 2 days, told me she was going to die. I said, “You’re too strong to die, and you’re really good.” She always just stared out the window, toward the mountains and the trees.  

I would read to her and try to talk, and even play music. She would get a small smile as she looked at me, and then turned and stared out the window again. She didn’t want to talk, or listen to a book. Nothing about the news. She wanted to die. Everyone tried to talk with her, more doctors and assessments. The truth was Merna wanted to go. 

A week later, I came into the room to prepare her for the day, and she was gone. Do not resuscitate order (DNR). 

I prepared her body, with gentleness, and said prayers while I waited for the coroner to come. I thought about her life, wondering what her husband was like. I hoped that she’d had a good life. I wanted her to be at peace.

I went in her room to pack her things, and I picked up the bra of many colors and shapes all sewn so beautifully. I turned to put it in a bag, and there she was, standing by the window. She didn’t look like she did when she was here; she was glowing with light, her skin looked so sparkly. Her eyes were clear and still gray, but with a blue tint. She was smiling, and my eyes filled with tears. But the room was filled with love, and light. I could feel her. She was gone. Home she went.

Why she showed herself I don’t really know, maybe because of all the times I’d tried to talk with her. I showed her respect and love. In return, she let me feel that joy and happiness of being set free. I see Merna and all the other wonderful, amazing people that I took of care in those years, in that little rural nursing home. They were my teachers. Each one teaching about death, and dying. Teaching me about compassion and love, and patience.  

Everyone has a story.  

    With Love,

Renee

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