“Have I said I love my job? I have... haven’t I?” I asked my fellow worker Frances, fighting tears back.
Frances gave me a sympathy look. “I know. There's too much going on,” she said, shaking her head.
“I have to confess, sometimes I don’t love my job.” I took a deep breath. “I’m going out for a break. I need to get a fresh cup of coffee.”
As I walked out of the facility I reflected on the events that had unfolded that week.
It had been a busy week. November seemed to be a peculiar month in the nursing home. It’s a month in which the resident's seasonal mood changes seem more noticeable. Going from warm temperatures to cloudy and cold days appeared to make some residents more anxious, or more withdrawn.
November is usually the month in which many residents become distressed about being in a nursing home, wanting to be at their own homes for Thanksgiving and for Christmas. Even if they are permanent residents, they still wish they were at home.
Families get anxious too. Guilt-ridden sons, daughters, spouses and siblings seem to channel their frustrations and anger toward the nursing home staff. And ultimately, many of the problems seem to end up in my lap.
Social Services will help you, I hear often.
Resolving problems means, for instance, taking care of complaints, meetings with families and residents, assuring that residents return to their home in safe conditions, directing room changes to resolve conflicts between room-mates, or searching for missing eye glasses.
Those would have been normal challenges during that week, if it hadn’t been for Mr. Goldman’s family. Mr. Goldman’s medical condition was guarded. His family had initially expressed their understanding of his poor prognosis.
“We want to take Dad home once his I.V. treatment is completed,” one of his children had said.
“We want him comfortable in his own home. We already talked with Hospice," a sibling mentioned.
A simple case. Mr. Goldman’s would be in our facility for just a few days. Then he would return to his home with his family.
Mr. Goldman’s family wasn't accepting his end-of-life condition. Their hopes that he would get better started to grow. And so did their stress. Day after day, week after week, Mr. Goldman’s family's demands and complaints multiplied.
Several family members visited daily, and would stay with him around the clock. I assisted them during meetings, addressed their concerns, helped with legal documents, phone calls, faxes, etc. Nurses dealt with them daily on medical issues. The physician spent a great deal of time talking to them every time he was in the building.
One day, Mr. Goldman’s oldest daughter came to me with another request. I told her it would be followed up the next day as it had to do with Housekeeping, and the staff had left for the day.
“I guess it’s getting late for everybody!” She said sarcastically, glancing at her wristwatch.
I remained quiet, not knowing what to say. It was better that way.
She turned around and, without a further word, walked out of my office.
The next day, I spoke with Mr. Goldman’s son in the resident's room. I told him that things were being taken care of. He voiced another concern, and stated he would be talking to the physician.
“That’s fine,” I said, doing my best to remain polite, and hiding my frustration.
On the way to my office, another problem arose, this time involving Mary, a not-so-empathetic co-worker. Mary had complained to my supervisor about me being late in turning in some paperwork.
I felt my patience was being tested more than I could handle.
Call it burnout, compassion fatigue, stress, or any other fancy term—the dreadful feeling is the same. It’s as though all of your energy is being sucked out from you, exposing the skeleton of your physical, mental and moral vulnerability.
It’s not a pleasant feeling.
The coffee shop was my refuge, a place of solace. As I savored a frothy cappuccino, I happened to run into my colleague Sarah.
What a blessing!
We engaged in a near-therapeutic conversation. Her understanding of the stress involving our jobs as social workers made me feel better. I was ready to return to my office—re-energized and in control of my emotions.
Back in my office, as I was catching up with my paperwork, I heard a man’s voice.
“Excuse me.” Mr. Goldman’s son was standing at my door.
What does he want now? I wondered. Thankfully, I was calm, and willing to take on another task.
He walked toward me.
“I want to let you know we appreciate all you’ve done for my Dad and us.” His voice carried his sincerity.
Speechless, I fixed my gazed on him.
He looked me in the eyes, and after a brief pause, he continued speaking.
“And I think you have a tough job,” he nodded, pursing his lips. He extended his hand to me.
“Thank you,” he said, as we shook hands.
He turned around, and left my office. I remained puzzled for a few seconds. Suddenly, I felt as though a huge and heavy load had been lifted from my shoulders. A good feeling enveloped me. I smiled for a couple of minutes, replaying the scene in my mind.
As a social worker I don’t expect for clients and families to thank me. Why should they? Helping them is my job, after all. But those words meant a world to me—that particular day.
A week from that day, as I was with my family, enjoying our Thanksgiving dinner, I thought of Mr. Goldman. By then, he had already gone home. I thanked the Lord for touching the hearts of his family.
I thought of my co-worker Mary too as she surprised me one more time. Days after that stressful day, she unexpectedly came to my office to clarify about what happened, and to apologize for the distress caused. We hugged each other. And I thanked the Lord for people’s kindness.
Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change. Kindness that catches us by surprise brings out the best in our natures.
- Bob Kerrey
That was a happy Thanksgiving. I sure had a lot to be thankful for.