Thursday, November 12, 2015

By any other name . . .

"Evelyn! Evelyn! Can you help me?"

Sibyl started calling me Evelyn about a year ago. That is not my name, not even close. But she was suffering from dementia and wouldn't recognize me from day to day before that. Dementia made her sweet one moment, angry the next. When I first met her, she pulled my hair.

Somewhere along the way, though, I became Evelyn, a woman who would always help her or hug her, bring her cocoa or a warm blanket, or find her glasses or a new book. She was always sweet to me when I was Evelyn. 

I asked the other aides if she called them Evelyn too. No, only me. She called Kim other K-names, like Kathy or Karen. Angela became Andrea or April. Gary was just the Handsome Asshole. 

For months, I answered to Evelyn, always happy to do so, always wondering why that particular name.

Then her husband died. When her family came to take her to his funeral, she grabbed my hand and said, "I want you to meet my boys!" To her sons, she said, "This is Evelyn!" They peered at my nametag quizzically. I explained I also answered to the name on my tag.

Sibyl clung to my hand, beaming. "She reminds me so much of my sister! Her name was Evelyn too!"

It was one of the sweetest moments at that job. I have a sister, and I'd like to think that when I am old and my memory is fading, I'll know her still, even in other faces. 

Dementia is a trickster. Its spell of confusion brought her the comfort of her sister, true. 

But last week . . . last week dementia was cruel. Last week, she asked who I was. "Evelyn," I said. She shrugged. It was just a name. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

When somebody dies

I work as a nursing assistant now, a big change from my old career. I was worried about how I'd handle the death of a patient I'd worked with, and I was surprised that I didn't fall apart. I work in long-term care, mostly with the elderly, and I've come into work to an empty bed several times in the last year. In some cases, I got to say goodbye. In others, someone was under the weather for a day or two, maybe a few weeks, then gone. Those are the hardest.

The first time someone died on my shift, I stepped in and relieved her aide who wasn't ready for the next step--wash her body and prepare her for the funeral home. Rita had had a fall and gone on hospice only a few weeks before--and she fought death every inch. Rita was a tiny, feisty woman who did not want to ask for help. She was mad that her body was failing her, and scared. I sat with her in her last days. So when she passed, I was stunned at my own response. I was sad. I knew I'd miss her. I kept on, though.

But yesterday, I almost lost it. I was helping a new patient to bed, and as I pulled the quilt around her shoulders, I thought it looked familiar. Then it hit me--it had belonged to Maggie. When I helped Maggie from her bed to her wheelchair, we'd joke we were going to win the next Dancing with the CNAs. Each time she'd get up, she'd tell me whether it would be a waltz, a foxtrot, or maybe a jitterbug. We'd hum, and she'd cling to my shoulders while I eased her into her seat. During our last waltz, we had no idea she'd fade so quickly and I'd greet an empty bed.

When someone passes, we help their family go through their belongings. Many time, families tell us to keep their clothes or blankets or special pillows for someone who needs them. Maggie's quilt now warms a blind woman who can't see its colors, but appreciates its warmth. Penny's pillow cushions a tender wrist. Alexander's slippers help a man with a new hip shuffle safely behind his walker.

Maybe I don't have to say goodbye to these kindly ghosts who walk beside me.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lily Marlena

A few years ago, I made a baby quilt for my nephew. The kitties decided to test it out. 

In 2001, my friend Mike called to say he'd found a sick kitten in his bushes. His cat was having none of her, so Mike got her patched up and brought her to me. Lily crept out of her carrier and nuzzled my grumpy old orange cat, Atticus, and presented her ears to Esme, my recently adopted sweetheart. They loved her.

Lily was a social kitten. I would come home from work to four or five cats on my porch, mooning over this beautiful girl. One of them, Leprechaun, moved in shortly after that.

She loved belly rubs on her terms, which were communicated via razor claws. Her purrs were impossibly loud, while her chirpy meows were barely audible.

She was all of seven pounds, but would post herself under the cherry tree, growling, determined to catch a squirrel. She never did, as far as I know, but we found a possum tail on the porch not long ago. Maybe she was successful in her last few weeks.

I miss her. When I come home, I look for a dash of white, then come up short.

A few weeks before she died, she sat on my lap for a long time, despite the draw of a gorgeous summer day outside, despite the big, curious dog next to her. I told myself to savor this--her spiderweb-silk fur, her crystal blue eyes squinting in contentment.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Three years ago, my heart stopped.

This is my application essay to physician assistant studies school. 

Three years ago, my heart stopped.

My partner George lay before me. I’d held his hand while he seized and coded, and now a kind nurse held me. With each zap of the defibrillator, his body arched off the bed. When his heart finally beat, mine could too.

In the summer of second chances, I watched George get stronger and think about what he wanted to do to make life and death meaningful. Approaching life from the epilogue changed how we thought about our next chapters. For George, that meant living life outside of work; for me, work is a vocation, a way to make a difference.

As I came to know George’s medical team, I spent our visits marveling at, and envying, his PAs. I told Robert, a cardiology PA, that he had the most amazing job in the world. He agreed. Our conversations turned from, “I wish I’d had a chance to be a PA,” to “I want to be a PA.” To me, that meant being part of a team focused on a person, not just a collection of symptoms—looking at both the immediate, critical needs and long-term health.

When I finally said it out loud, George, his medical team, and my own doctors all agreed, enthusiastically, that not only could I do it, but I would be great.

I’m not a typical PA student. I don’t have straight A’s. I’m in my 40s. But I do have a rich background.

My first time through college, I had a notion to be a vet or study genetics, but I also had the mindset of a first-generation college student who didn’t know how to study or ask for help. I managed to get a master’s in English and look for ways to make the world a little better.

I taught college composition, then brought in millions of dollars in grants for teaching, research, and underserved communities. I served on boards and commissions that give voice to the underserved and marginalized. My quest for social justice got me to the Democratic National Convention as a national delegate. I kept teaching, and I kept taking classes: Spanish, winemaking, and American Sign Language.

Throughout all of that, I helped my friends and family with their health issues. I’ve sat at bedsides and researched aortic aneurysm, breast cancer, postpartum depression, neuroma, and prion disease. My crohn’s disease taught me how difficult it is, for patients and providers, to make sense of a mysterious collection of symptoms and navigate disease management when there is no cure.

Three years ago, my heart took me in a new direction.

Two years ago, I took a long-dreaded chemistry class and surprised myself with an A. An international development class took me to Nicaragua, where I worked on water quality with AMOS. Dr. Laura told us that when she arrived, eager to cure tropical diseases, she learned the most important thing a doctor could do was teach. Ending poverty started with safe water. In our mountain village, my closest friend was Jaclyn, 9, a tiny, bright, sweet little girl who did not go to school because she needed to watch her baby sister while her mother worked. I left a piece of my heart with her.

One year ago, I left my job to become a Certified Nursing Assistant and immerse myself in school.

I shadowed a PA in urgent care, listening to congested lungs, looking at rashes, watching elegant stitches repair gashes, learning about gout and sprains, antibiotics and drug interactions.

With each experience, I found new things to love about our precarious bodies. It’s a family project. George quizzes me on anatomy; the boys look over my shoulder while I research.

Nigel, 19, met me at the door the night Donna died. I’d help wash her body. Nigel had heard me talk about the feisty woman whose hand I’d held in her last days. Something profound happened to her, and by extension me, and he wanted to process how a person lives 85 years, then stops. He could not have done this three years earlier, with his dad. I had to. For the space of a heartbeat, I faced life without him--then faced life with new meaning.

I know I will be a good PA. I’ve seen life and death. I’ve seen crushing poverty. I’ve seen students light up when I help them understand something they’ve always hated or feared. I held my mother’s hand through breast cancer, pestered a dear friend to visit a doctor so she could walk again, reviewed clinical trials with my rheumatologist, and helped neighbors calm fevered babies. My grumpiest patients light up when we talk tomato gardens, puppies, and those things that show them they are valued and wise.

And even my worst days, when my patients are sad, violent or dying and I come home with a sore body and heavy heart–even those days are better than my last career because I can count the ways I made someone’s day better, even if it was their last.

With PA studies, I love the rigorous education, the flexibility to generalize or specialize, the opportunity to teach, and the ability to help underserved communities. I will model my work on the most caring, thoughtful, curious, and tenacious health care providers and teachers I’ve known.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The icy fingers of fog blossom into flowers of hope*

I sort of forgot I had this blog. Heh.

It's been a little over a year since I launched. My last year at my old job was particularly unpleasant, what with a unhappy manager, gutted department, persistent gossip, and the gnawing feeling of not doing enough in the world.

So now I make less than one-third of my old salary as a CNA in a nursing home. Even my worst days, of poop and death and yelling, are better than my old job.

I'm applying to PA school, and if I get in this year, it will be on the strength of my essay more than my grades or healthcare experience. I made this decision relatively late. Most PA students are young whippersnappers in their 20s. I'm guessing that more than half say, with all sincerity, that they want this path because they want to help people.

This path chose me.

There have been a few times in my life where I just knew. Sometimes that knowing was crisp and sudden, like the time I went to a caucus and just knew I wanted to be a delegate--and somehow made it to the national convention. But this PA thing took a while. The idea crept in ever so gently--through a crack in my mind* that wasn't there until the moment I watched George's heart stop, then start again.

You know how you feel like you're looking at the world, then it changes 1/360th of a degree? Like that.

This is why I am not the novelist I sort of wanted to be way back in the day.

*metaphors--I abuse them.