Sunday, March 24, 2013

Exclusive! Book Excerpt!

Fish Out of Water

From the start the staff at the rehab center didn't know what to do with me.  They have a pretty standard playbook that is designed with the elderly in mind.  I know they have the occasional younger patient (I heard of two patients while I was there who were women in their 30's who suffered strokes) but they didn't do much to bring down the median age.  Even at 54 I was a young 'un.

Add to that the fact that I have many friends and friends of friends and my room came to be known as the party room.  It was literally a revolving door of visitors, the likes of which most of the staff—who had apparently spent their entire careers with geriatric patients—had never seen.  The majority of the other patients had few—if any—visitors.  They spent the bulk of their spare time watching reality television or napping.  They did not have laptop computers or cell phones; they did not entertain guests regularly.

At meal times, most of the patients were wheeled—or self-propelled—to the "dining room."  This was for most of them the only real "socializing" many of them did outside of their therapy sessions.  I was asked nearly every day if I planned to take my dinner in the "dining room" and every day I demurred.  This confounded the staff.  Remember they had their playbook.  I'm sure there is a section in there about the importance of patient socialization for maximum recovery.  The other reason was that many of the stroke patients unfortunately had choking issues (one big reason why our food appeared to be "pre-chewed" and mushy) and it was easier for staff to keep watch over the flock when they were herded safely into the paddock at mealtimes.

Don't get me wrong.  I certainly appreciate that their rules are based on years of experience with the average stroke patient.  But I was definitely not average.  I had a laptop computer and a Nook and a cell phone.  Once I was mobile enough to get myself up and into my wheelchair I set up my field office which meant that I needed more than the one standard-issue hospital room table; I had two.
And then there were the flowers. Not just flowers; it was as if a complete florist's shop had been set up in my room.  I don't think I ever took a final count but I know that there were at least five orchids alone!  There were arrangements of every size and color and flower combination.  There were single plants and whole planters of plants.  They crowded each other on my rather large and wide window sill.  They spilled over onto the floor.  There were overflow flowers crammed on top of my "dresser."  It was a fulltime job just to find room for them all and keep them watered.  And I loved it!

So did the staff.  Frequently I would have visits even from staff who didn't work my room.  Apparently news about me traveled far and wide and they all came to see the "woman who had many friends."  They came to see the flowers, to meet the dog, and to chat.  It was as if I was some celebrity holding court.  And apparently they had never seen the likes of me before.  They had never seen so many flowers—and greeting cards (which were plastered all over my inadequate bulletin board)—and they had never had a patient who had so many visitors (sometimes three groups in a day).  I was a regular side show!

They also came to talk to me.  I could carry on a conversation, talk about books I was reading, discuss environmental issues, share recipes.  I even had several attendants who confided deep secrets and personal tragedies.  I don't mean to brag, but I think I even inspired a little bit of jealousy on the part of staff members who were not assigned to my room and my treatment sessions!  I earned their trust enough that they began to share little known secrets such as the fact that I could have more say about my meals and they would also commiserate with me on frustrations with the "system."

And the real reason I didn't opt to go the dining room?  To be honest, it was downright depressing.  I had the occasion to stop in there to get some of my own food from my stash in the refrigerator.  Trust me, it would have done nothing for my emotional recovery.  Most of the patients were not only much older but in pretty bad shape.  I had compassion for them but I just couldn't sit and eat surrounded by them.  I was much happier to eat alone in my room with my book.  And I promised not to choke.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

At the center of a nutmeg pod


The other day my daughter complained that every time she uses our pepper grinder--which has three settings for grind size--"someone" has changed its grind size to coarse and that she wished people would return it to fine when they finished using it implying, of course, that fine is the normal setting, the status quo.  Any other option is a deviation, translated "wrong."

I realized then that in our household at least, there exists in other instances this same group think.  There is a "normal" setting such as this for the toaster, dishwasher, clothes washer and clothes dryer.  This setting is so accepted that if someone (i.e. me) changes the setting for a particular load (because that choice is more appropriate) others using the same machine go on using that new setting without questioning even if it is not appropriate for their purposes.  This is because, in their minds, there is a "normal" setting that is "always" used; why would anyone deviate?

This thinking often spills over into other areas like positioning of the driver's seat and mirrors.  What is normal for me is not necessarily normal for you.  Yet,if I was the last person to drive the car you might expect me to reposition everything so that it was perfect for you the next time you drive (presuming that your setting is right and normal; mine is the aberration).   It's easy to see why you might think this if you drive the car more often than I.  You might see yourself as the main driver and therefore your settings as the accepted normal.  But the status quo could quickly change if I suddenly started using the car "more" than you.  You begin to see how "normal" is truly arbitrary.

In 18th century America it was "normal" to own slaves.  In most of the 20th century it was normal to smoke in restaurants and on airplanes--even doctors might smoke in their examination rooms.  Group think--often the accepted definition of "normal"--is not necessarily right, not necessarily what's best.  It is true that in nature sometimes wires get crossed and something "unusual" happens in a species; but sometimes that "unusual" thing starts happening more and more until what was abnormal is now quite normal. 

In reality, what I think of as normal, is often what I have decided I am comfortable with, what works for me, what fits my view of the world.  I might find like-minded people who agree with me but this does not necessarily mean that I am right, that there is, in fact a "normal" and then there is the "abnormal" and the world should side with me and my supporters.

The smaller the world gets and the more connected its inhabitants get the more we need to be open to rethinking "normal."