A Place Like That
“How do you work at a place like that?” someone will inevitably ask me when they find out I work in a nursing home. Sometimes it’s more of a statement, sometimes it’s an admission that they could never do it, sometimes they say it with a shake of the head; an intrepid person will occasionally say it with a wrinkled nose. Why work in a place where smelling someone’s excrement is the norm? Where the worst of what a human body is capable is shoved in your face day after day? After all, I didn’t even pick a major even close to nursing (if someone asked you the opposite of nursing, you’d have to say English). I started working there after 6 long months of unemployment full of ice cream, bad TV and “where-the-hell-will-I-get-health-insurance” panic attacks. Luckily my dad knew someone who needed a receptionist in a nursing home he ran, so off I was to the land of gainful employment.
I’ve been there for 7 years now and sometimes I ask MYSELF how I can work there. Having to call housekeeping to clean up pee, telling 80 year old women 15 times that their mom is not coming to get them so please turn around, and smelling the foulest of odors routinely… well, it sure doesn’t make me happy to work there some days.
A few months ago, we got a guy named Joey (names changed to protect the innocent). He has a trach, and that means he can’t speak (he’s Irish, so that usually doesn’t stop him). At 50, he’s younger than most of our elderly residents but in need of nursing care nonetheless. I’ve gotten to know him mainly because of his brain injury; he was caught smoking a bunch of times (a no-no at our facility) and has lashed out at a few people earning him a permanent friend 24 hours a day (a staff member has to follow him around and make sure he’s not causing trouble).
I started picking up shifts watching him because it was overtime (a scarce commodity doing an office job) and it was a good chance to sit and read for a few hours. I continued picking up shifts because as it turns out, he was a really sweet (offering to buy me dinner and getting me candy from the vending machine) funny (loves a good sarcastic joke) and caring guy who likes getting to know people. He has his maddening moments, like when he gets angry at you for no actual reason, but overall, he’s a nice guy that cares about other people.
Today was his 50th birthday. It started out like an ordinary day. He didn’t get a card from his mom (a fact I had to awkwardly confront his mom about on the phone since he can’t talk) and he didn’t seem too happy to have to be followed all day, particularly on a day like his birthday.
Meanwhile, three of us in the office downstairs (who have been picking up 1 on 1 shifts with him regularly) all pitched in to get him some birthday gifts. We got him a modest bag of some snacks, Snickers (his absolute favorite), car magazines and a toy car (his other favorite) and cupcakes to celebrate the occasion. He sat there smiling, and for the first time that I’ve seen, contentedly speechless.
When the celebration was almost done, he grabbed the envelope of the card we gave him and wrote on it: “you really came though with this party. I didn’t think anyone would. Thank you”.
That note actually answers our question: that is how I can work at a place like that.