“Say that again, please, ma’am,” the 911 operator said, “Where exactly are you calling from?”
The tables had turned on me that morning. Instead of caregiver, I was suddenly the care receiver.
I’d become ill at work and left for home. My symptoms worsened as I drove. I’m talking abdominal and back pain approaching nothing I’ve experienced since the birth of my son Matt 27 years ago at 9 pounds, 14 ounces with no epidural. I changed course and drove straight to the hospital.
I made it into the building, but then opted for the restroom before checking in. I sat down but could not get back up. Even in my misery, the irony did not escape me that I was phoning 911 —FROM THE ER.
I spent the next week in and out of the hospital. I had lots of caregivers, and made lots of mental notes for future reference. Among them:
One nurse went quickly through her computer checklist of questions every hour, but another looked me in the eyes and really talked with me. One nurse assistant reprimanded me for not wearing slipper-socks to the bathroom and for not drinking enough water. She brought the supplies I needed for a shower. But another turned on the water so it would be warm by the time I got in, put fresh ice in my water pitcher and handed it to me.
At home my caregiver was my husband. He doesn’t like being mentioned in the newspaper, so I’ll refer to him as Nurse Ratched.
Nurse Ratched already had a blemish on his caregiver record, dating back to the aforementioned birth experience. Despite eight weeks of childbirth classes, he was clueless. He continually bumped the bed and asked me stupid questions in the middle of my contractions, then left to grab a bite to eat, returning barely in time for the delivery of his son.
I had been impressed with Nurse Ratched’s progress, though, as we shared the care of his dad for the past several months. He was attentive, thoughtful and compassionate. One day his dad mentioned that he sure would love to have his feet washed. It moved me to tears to watch my husband fill a tub with warm water to soak his dad’s feet, then gently scrub, dry and massage them with lotion.
But when Nurse Ratched became my caregiver again, I immediately began marking tallies against him.
He butted in when the doctors and nurses asked me questions. He was too chatty with the hospital staff. He bumped my bed. He put a blanket on me when I was hot. He turned the TV up too loud and the lights too bright. He brought me the wrong food and the wrong drinks and the wrong clothes. He used the wrong tone of voice. Naturally, I complained.
He said I was a terrible patient. I retorted that it doesn’t matter what the patient is like: The caregiver has to be nice no matter what! And I called my mom.
Finally, on the seventh day, my fever broke and my pain diminished substantially. I actually heard a harp strum and saw the clouds part and the light stream through — onto Nurse Ratched.
While I was ensconced on my couch/throne, he was playing host to 14 people. (I had begged my mother to travel from St. Louis to hold my hand, one son was home from college recovering from stomach flu, our daughter was in town with a friend, and I had invited several more family members over so we could all enjoy each others’ company).
I started thinking back over the week. Nurse Ratched remembered to tell the doctors some things I’d forgotten. He befriended the hospital staff, no doubt making things go better for me. He waited on me hand and foot all week long despite being crazy busy at work. He entertained guests for the weekend, and shopped, cooked, served and cleaned up after all of us on the seventh day — the day of rest.
That night, down to only three of us in the house again, I mentioned that I felt chilly and was heading to bed. I slipped under the cold covers and my feet hit — warmth! Nurse Ratched had placed a heating pad there for me.
And suddenly I realized that Nurse Ratched was really Prince Charming.
There’s nothing like “walking a mile in their shoes” to help you become a better caregiver, and I have a long list of improvements I can make, thanks to the caregivers I had — the good, the bad and even Nurse Ratched. I was also reminded that, as difficult as it may be at times to be the caregiver, it’s way better than being the caregivee.
You, Nurse Ratched, are not off the hook. You still need to work on your tone. But I admit it: I am a terrible patient.