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Monday, November 19, 2012

Finding Peace

                                                                                            Photo source

“My Dad is not crazy,” Mr. Martin’s daughter expressed.  “He’s just mad, and tired of not feeling well.”

It’s difficult for families to observe and accept the decline in the medical and mental status of their loved ones.  That, and the possibility of their loved one needing placement in a nursing home, is an overwhelming decision.  But often worse for the families is to learn that their loved one should be committed to a geriatric psychiatric unit (“geri-psych” for short) for evaluation and treatment. 

Mr. Martin had come to our facility at his and his family request.  Apparently, he’d been quite ill for several months, being in and out of the hospital, until his recent discharge to a nursing home in town.  While at that other facility, he reportedly became agitated with the staff, and was shipped to a psychiatric hospital.  

As it turned out, Mr. Martin was found competent, with no reason to be committed to the psych ward.  He was merely angry, yet there was no evidence he wanted to cause any harm to himself or to anyone else. 

Maybe he was just having a bad day, I questioned.

Although the hospital records reflected that Mr. Martin was a short-tempered man, I thought we should give him a chance at our facility.  Maybe a new place and new faces would cheer him up.  Maybe not.  But we were open to the challenge. 

“Mr. Martin and his daughter are very excited,” the hospital discharge planner expressed to me on the phone.  “His daughter said she prayed for him to be accepted at your facility, and she believed God answered her prayers.”

I’d heard of other people “wanting” to come to our nursing home, but that was the first time I heard of someone “praying” to be accepted.  I felt humbled.  I sensed in my heart we had made the right decision to accept the placement. 

Mr. Martin came under our care, with no problems.  I observed the staff trying to converse with him, even though he was not prone to engaging in long visits.  Sometimes, he would determine what he wanted or how he wanted things to be done regardless of the staff and other resident’s needs.  The staff always showed him respect and patience. 

“He is a sweet man,” I once heard a nurse say.  I was pleased to hear her say that. 

I visited with Mr. Martin several times.  He was a practical person and would talk straightforward, again, wanting to keep the visits brief.  He preferred to stay in his room most of the time.

After a few months, Mr. Martin began to show improvements in his overall condition.  He seemed more motivated to get up and wheel himself throughout the halls. His strength was visibly better.  His appetite, initially poor, was now good.

“My Dad wants to receive the Lord,” Mr. Martin’s daughter told me on a phone conversation.  “He has made poor decisions in his life. He was an alcoholic and my mother left him.  Just now, in his seventies, when his health is so diminished, he realizes he needs to atone for mend his mistakes somehow.” 

I listened with empathy.  I was deeply touched with this daughter’s understanding and compassion toward her Dad.  I wondered about the magnitude of the struggles they may have faced in the past.  I guess at that point, it didn’t matter. The most important event was the mutual closeness and trust they had achieved.

“I want to let you know I’ll be there today with our Pastor.  My Dad will be baptized.”

Mr. Martin was baptized.  He seemed more at peace after that.  He actually became more talkative with the staff.  

One Friday, I saw him in the hall, and at first glance he looked nearly unrecognizable.  His face seemed more round as he evidently had gained some weight.  His blue eyes
looked sparkly, his cheeks shone with cerise pink shades, like a blooming garden.  I also noticed his strength had increased by the way he maneuvered his wheelchair. 

“You look great, Mr. Martin,” I expressed as I passed him. 

“I’m feeling better.”  His face sported a gracious smile. Then I turned and saw his slender figure fade down the hall as he was headed to the dining room. 

Feeling good and feeling God, I mused. 


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Laughter, The Best Medicine

“She is hilarious!”  I heard my co-worker say.  I glanced at him and at the other three co-workers, noticing their playful grins.  While waiting for a meeting to start, I was distracted reading a document and missed their conversation. 

“Who are you talking about?”  I asked, now intrigued. 

“Ms. Clarkson.”  My coworker said.  “She comes up with jokes, and witty remarks that makes everyone laugh.” 

Ms. Clarkson was a new resident in the nursing home.  She came to us for rehabilitation and her stay was expected to be about a couple of weeks.  I had met her during her admission.  She was kind, but there was no humor in her demeanor that day. 

Normally the first day of admission is not a fun day.  There’s stress and uncertainty for the new resident.  They often are experiencing pain, discomfort, or exhaustion from the health issues they are going through.  Even if they come for a short stay, it seems that sometimes the terrifying thought of getting “stuck” in a nursing home crosses their minds. 

As it turned out, when Ms. Clarkson started to feel more comfortable with the staff, she shared her jokes, and even expressed her humorous sarcasm that often got a laugh out of her caregivers.

Ms. Clarkson was a widow, trying to continue living independently.  Her  husband had passed away several years ago, and they never had children.  In her early eighties, this stage of her life was not an easy challenge for her to face alone.  But she was not ready to give up. 

I looked forward to my visits with Ms. Clarkson once she was more settled.  Our conversations became enjoyable, full of laughter.  Her humor was unique.  When she rested, she liked to watch TV, and to drink coffee.  She knew how to balance her day.

One day, I was on the mission of getting her dentures fixed.  As I came back from the dentist office, I rushed to find Ms. Clarkson to return her dentures so she could eat comfortably that evening.  I found her in the rehab gym, eagerly doing her PT exercises. 

I raised my hand, showing her a plastic cup containing her dentures. 

‘They are fixed!” I said, with excitement. 

She seemed curious to see the dental piece.  I gave it to her, she scrutinized it, and her lips curved into a smile of satisfaction. 

“They did a good job,” she exclaimed.  “They even marked it with my name...” 

I thought it was a great idea as dentures can get easily misplaced in hospitals or nursing homes.  But Ms. Clarkson offered a different rationale.  She popped the dentures into her mouth and flashed a mischievous grin, adding:

“... I guess in case I ever get murdered!” 

Everybody burst out laughing.  I had no doubt humor and laughter played a significant part in her health recovery, and her successful return to her home.

Photo source: Inspired Wednesdays

"Laughter reduces pain, increases job performance, connects people emotionally, and improves the flow of oxygen to the heart and brain." (Psychology Today)

“Laughter is the spark of the soul.”

“The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.” ~ Mark Twain

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Colors Through My Resident's Eyes

I looked at myself in the mirror.  My pink skirt suit seemed to reflect my mood that day.  It was intense.  Bright colors lift my mood on dull days—just like that particular winter morning.

My day started well, and the many “good morning” and smiles from co-workers and residents appeared to be a preamble of a splendid day.  

But my gleeful morning didn’t last long.  I ran into Lucy in the hall, a co-workers well-known for her outspoken personality and dark humor.

“You look like a flamingo!”  Lucy said, with a huge grin illuminating her face.  Perhaps her big smirk was not more than a smile, but no one would have convinced me otherwise at that moment.  I sensed she was not expressing a compliment. 

I was at a loss for words.  I managed to control the burning anger brewing inside of me.  I quickly decided it was wiser to not honor Lucy’s unwelcome humor.  I half-smiled and continued walking down the hall, at a faster pace now.

My day didn’t feel like a “good day” after that moment.  And it was the last time I wore what I thought it was a fashionable pink suit.  My “flamingo suit” became a charity donation to a Christian thrift shop soon thereafter.

Months had passed.  One day in the summer, I pulled a new bright-yellow dress off from its hanger in the closet.  I thought the outfit would go quite well with the warm weather and the sunny morning.  To add a professional look, I combined my sleeveless dress with a cute black cardigan.

Once at work, as we waited for our boss to join us and start the morning meeting, Lucy’s voice was heard in the conference room:

“You look like a bumblebee!”

My co-workers looked at me.  No one said a word.  I felt as though a bee had stung me.  Another unpleasant comment from Lucy.  It did bother me, but I projected a cool expression, and looked at everyone, faking a smile. 

I tried to push away the irritating feeling, and not to let Lucy ruin another day.  I eventually became busy and focused on my own work tasks.  

At the end of the day, I headed to the dining room to fill my mug with freshly brewed coffee.  As I walked by, I greeted some of my residents, and was met with sincere and gracious smiles. 

“Hello!” I heard a man’s voice.  I looked around and soon spotted someone waiving at me.  It was Mr. Reynolds, one of the kindest residents in the nursing home. 

I waived back and headed toward the table where he was sat, sipping from a glass of juice.  Mr. Reynolds was an elderly gentleman known by many for his social skills.  The dining room was his preferred place to hang out.  Even though he had early Alzheimer’s dementia, he seemed to recognize me every time he saw me.

“Hi Mr. Reynolds!” I exclaimed, with a warm smile. 

“Hi Hon.”  He smiled back.  I knew he rarely remembered names, so he often used expressions such a “sweetie” or “hon” or “kiddo” when talking with staff.  “I want to tell you... you look very nice.” 

“Thank you, Mr. Reynolds!”  I was taken by surprise as I didn’t expect a compliment about my outfit, not after Lucy’s remark that morning.  “I was told I look like a bumblebee.”

But my resident had a different analogy.

“Oh no... no. You look like a...” Mr. Reynolds touched his chin with his right hand, and looked down, deeply thinking, trying to remember the word he wanted to express. 

“You look like a...” He continued his word search.  I pondered on what word he was trying to recall.  I wondered if I should try to guess it.  I waited, the suspense killing me.

“Sunflower! Yes, you look like a sunflower!”  Mr. Reynolds exclaimed loudly, and extended his right arm up as a sign of victory, flashing a spectacular smile.

“How sweet of you, Mr. Reynolds.” I gave him a gentle hug, and left him to savor the rest of his juice. 

I resumed my path toward the coffee machine.  I reflected on Mr. Reynolds’ kindness, and his graceful analogy.  

His struggle with his memory loss was evident, yet one thing I was certain—His Alzheimer’s hadn’t touched the goodness of his soul.  That I savored while reflecting with my evening coffee.  

"In this treacherous world nothing is either truth or lie; everything depends on the color of the crystal that one looks through" - Ramón de Campoamor (1817-1901)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Thankful Hearts

“What a treat!” Barbara exclaimed, flashing a charming smile.  Then she took a sip of her black coffee.

“We haven’t been here in a while!”  I said as I scanned the breakfast place.

It was a delightful Friday morning.  I was determined to fully enjoy my day off.  I had stopped at the retirement community and surprised Barbara with an invitation to a sumptuous breakfast, at our favorite local restaurant.  

Barbara looked radiant, beautiful.  I was so used to see her wearing her nasal cannula and carrying her portable oxygen tank that it just seemed part of her apparel.  Her eyes shone as she browsed through the menu. 

I took a long sip of my coffee, my gaze still fixed on my friend.  In her early seventies, and despite her medical challenges, she seemed to have more energy than many of the younger people I knew. 

“You look good, Barb!”  I felt I had to speak out my thoughts. 

Barbara tilted her head and looked at me, raising her eyebrows, as though trying to catch up with what I had just said, or perhaps attempting to decipher the reason of my astronomical grin. 

“I feel good.”  She graciously replied. 

“I didn’t think you were going to recover so well after seeing how ill you were over a year ago,” I said, sensing a hint of melancholy in my own words. 

“I know...” She pursed her lips and sighed.

My thoughts quickly rewinded to those days in the hospital and then in the nursing home when Barbara was gasping for air—and for life.  I remembered when the option of hospice was suggested by a doctor in the hospital.  I shook my head trying to dust off those heartbreaking memories.

“Dr. Zubair has done more for me than any other doctor in my life.”  Barbara spoke calmly, but with assertiveness.  She reached for her coffee cup and took another sip. 

“He is an amazing doctor.”  I arched my eyebrows, and my mind flooded again with memories from when Barbara was in the hospital.  I recalled my desperate phone call to Dr. Zubair, asking for his intervention in my friend’s case. 

“Has Dr. Zubair been in the nursing home lately?” Barbara asked. 

“He is there all the time!”  I smiled, a feeling of comfort embracing me.

Then, as I continued looking at Barbara, I realized that I often thought of my residents and their inspirational stories, but very few times I’ve thought of those taking care of the residents.

There are many physicians, nurses, aides, other professionals, and workers in the medical field, providing marvelous care to our patients, and comforting their families and friends.  Dr. Zubair was certainly one of them.

He was a physician I trusted with all my heart, and Barbara couldn’t have been more blessed when he took charge of her medical care. 

Not only was he a well-respected doctor, but by watching him in the hospital and in the nursing home, I was quite impressed that he was humble and devoted to his patients.  He had the patience of a saint to deal with difficult cases, and with demanding families.  

I pondered how many people thanked him for caring for their loved ones.  Many, I hoped.  I wondered how many miracles the Lord worked through this doctor, much like Barbara’s case. 

“Here, Barb, let me take a picture of you...” I pulled my iPhone from my purse, set the camera on, and captured yet another radiant smile of my dear friend. 

“Oh, look at my hair!” Barbara giggled.  I laughed as I thought of how adorable she looked with her prideful expression. 

“I’ll show this picture to Dr. Zubair next time I see him.”  I turned my phone screen toward Barbara.  “I want him to see how great you looked today, and will thank him for taking such a good care of you.”

She glanced at my iPhone screen and her eyes lit up with excitement. 

“Are you ladies ready to order?”  A young waitress approached, and politely stood by our table.  Barbara and I looked at each other with gleeful expression. 

“Yes, we are!” Barbara joyfully exclaimed. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Haiti- The Pearl Of The Antilles (Part 2)

We finally arrived to Les Cayes, formerly Aux Cayes, a town and seaport in southwestern Haiti, with a population of approximately 46,000 people.  We turned onto a gravel road, and for a few minutes we struggled with the bumpy car swings until we entered Pwoje Espwa or “Hope Village.”  

There’s a gate, with a security guard. The first building we spotted on our left was the orphanage. Perched on a 125-acre property, this orphanage, the largest in the western hemisphere, houses over 600 kids. 

The kids receive education through high school, balanced meals, clothing, medical services, vocational training, recreation, and much of caring. 


We were taken to the guest house, a safe and comfortable place for visitors. The soft breeze of the afternoon was as warm as the greetings and smiles from the Espaw residents. 

Throughout our week stay, we had the opportunity to tour the different buildings and projects in the Hope Village.  We contemplated the crops, the cattle and goats, as part of the productive projects implemented.  

It was unfortunate that we couldn't meet Fr. Marc, founder of Pwoje Espwa, who has spent fourteen years devoted to Haiti. Fr. Marc was gone on sabbatical. 

The orphanage has housing units, with home mothers assigned to care and supervise small groups of children.  It was summer, the kids were out of school, so they had plenty of time to run and play throughout the day.  One interesting fact is that even though they have been supplied with shoes, they preferred to run bear-footed.  It was cooler for them given the heat.  There was no air conditioning, so light clothing was favored. 
                                               Trash pick up activity with the kids

My first encounter with the children was a heartwarming experience.  I’ve never had so many children around me, blooming with smiles and hugs.  I loved their sweet little voices, speaking their Haitian creole.  I knew nothing of creole but after some memory struggle I was able to retrieve some of my high school French basics, and voilà! the kids understood some of my broken French.  I loved how beautiful they pronounced my name. 

But the best was yet to come. The next day, we had a “shopping” activity with the little girls.  Our team had brought girl dresses that we displayed on tables and shared throughout the patio of the guesthouse.  Each girl could go around and pick up a dress of her preference, and hair bows and hair combs.  Initially, they seemed shy, but soon they were cheerful and smiley. 

Yet the real excitement for me started when one of the girls, Moustafa, started to touch my ponytail and asked me to let her comb my hair. I loosen my hair, and she started to comb it.  Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by a group of smiley girls, combing and braiding my hair. I was in awe. 
                                                   Moustafa is the girl on my left

What a heavenly feeling.  Right there, I experienced a unique exchange of love and fraternity.  We brought a donation in clothing and items for the kids, yet those little souls had nothing but pure love to give us in return.  Our spirits were filled with joy by their gracious and tender companion.  They were giving from their hearts. 

The following days were full of fun, extending our activities to the rest of the kids. Craft and drawing activities. 

But I was given another surprise.  As the younger boys were finishing a handprint shirt activity, I started to take pictures with my iPhone.  The kids wanted to see the pictures, and I showed them.  Then I set on the front-facing feature on my iPhone, attempting to take a picture of me with one of the kids.  As he saw his imagine on the screen, his eyes shone in awe, and he started to make facial gestures, then he giggled at his own imagine.  I turned on the video feature, and produced a quick video of him; his amazement was now greater.  This drew attention from the other kids, and within seconds, a crowd of kids were around me, wanting to be video-taped.  I made several quick videos and replayed them to the kids.  They just loved it!  They liked to see themselves. They were the stars on those videos.  Then they started to sing and dance while making more quick videos. Lots of fun!

A group of about 16 young men were involved in the village shores and helping to supervise the younger kids.  The group is part of a leadership project in which they will learn different skills to survive in the community.  Many of them came to the village at a very young age and may not know what to do when they go to the outside world: How to rent a room? How to enroll in college? How to find a job?  They also get spiritual guidance, being encouraged to be men with moral standards, and respect for others.  A few young men have been helped with grants to attend college. I heard for instance, of a young man who graduated as a physician, and has come back to the village to provide medical services. Another one graduated as an engineer. Every little effort counts. Each successful story is an example to the little ones who we prayed may have a better life than their parents. 

Over 2000 people are fed every day in the Hope Village: 600 plus kids from the orphanage, children from the communities around, and the village workers.  Espwa is the second largest employer in the town of Les Cayes. 

We also spent time out of the village.  As part of our agenda, we visited the prison of Les Cayes, where over 500 people are incarcerated. First of all, it was a challenge to get authorization to visit the place, and bring packets with underwear and shirts for the inmates.  It had taken Fr. Marc and other people associated to Espaw, several years to build a relationship with the Chief Inspector and to allow visits and donations.  After 45 minutes or so of waiting, the Inspector arrived.  At first, we thought the Inspector was a military man in a highly decorated uniform driving a white vehicle.  But we quickly found out that man was a UN officer from Rwanda, and was there as part of the security that the UN peacekeepers provide to Haiti.  The actual Inspector came out of a heavily armored vehicle, with tinted windows and security glass. He was wearing a hawaiian shirt.  

We were finally allowed to enter the prison, in two groups. I was in the second group, so we patiently waited outside of the building.  When it was our turn, we walked into a courtyard surrounded by cells.  What we saw was shocking, even though we had been warned.  I have no words to describe the deplorable conditions of that facility and the misery reflected by the incarcerated men and women.  

There were about a dozen cells, each of 10 x 15 feet approximately.  In these cells were an average of 45 men. One cell had only 5 prisoners, who were isolated because of chicken pox.  Prisoners were reportedly allowed time in the courtyard once a day for a few minutes.  We observed men bathing in the courtyard, soapy water from a bucket.  Men wore only underwear.  I believed it was most likely because the heat would have been unbearable. 

The cells looked so crowded, men were clinging to the iron bars on the doorway, struggling for fresh air. I noticed a four-tiered bunk bed in each cell.  I wondered how they rotate turns to lay down. We heard the inmates receive only one meal a day. I spied a couple of guys eating some brown slop from a tin bowl, with their fingers. I had to fight back tears.

We handed out the packers with the assistance of an inmate assigned to help with this.  We were told how many men were in each cell, and that exact number of packets were handed through the cell opening to the “cell leader.”  It was interesting to learn about the informal hierarchy established within the cell.  As we went from cell to cell, we discreetly glanced at their faces, sensing a wide rage of emotions. Some were despondent, some smiled, some looked depressed, some looked angry.  A few expressed thankfulness.  We heard a couple of “Thank You”, in English.

The women seemed more fortunate than the men.  The 24 women, all in one cell fairly larger than the others, fared a bit better.  They were sitting and talking, and some were combing and braiding their hair.  We handed their packets to the cell leader, each containing washcloth, soap, sports bra and underwear. 

We concluded our visit by leaving enough packets for the prison workers.  We heard some of these inmates are guilty, some not, some have done more time than they could possible imagine for petty crimes.  Some have been incarcerated for months or even years without being formally charged or seen a judge.  There’s a heavy bureaucracy in Haiti, we learned. Not just in the penal system, but in every instance of the local government.

No doubt it was a dreadful place.  It was a disturbing scene what was in front of us.  Beyond punishment, what people faced right there was a spiritual breakage.  No one should have to suffer such inhumane conditions.  I pondered whether anyone would think being there was worse than the death penalty.  Physical suffering, emotional pain, and soul inertness were tested to the limit.  

I found out later that in 2010 there was a massacre that took place exactly in that prison. More than a dozen prisoners were killed and over 40 were wounded by the police. Read more here.

I was thankful for the opportunity to, at least, show those men and women that there are people out there thinking of them.  That there is hope even when one’s life seems reduced to mere misery and devastation.  That they were in someone’s prayers. 


By the next morning, I felt it would be a different day—a special day.  

That was the day to visit Mother Teresa’s orphanage, run by the Sisters of Charity. 

The place was gated and we were instructed that pictures were not allowed.  We met a sister from India who kindly started to show us the facility.  We initiated our tour with a unit with many babies, apparently under two years old, laying in cribs.  We were told those were sick and terminally-ill babies.  Many suffered of malnutrition, others had AIDS, or TB, etc.  Our hearts broke as we walked down the rows of cribs, and glanced at those little sad faces.  No smiles, no sounds of laughter, not even sounds of crying.  Only blank stares from the diminutive faces peering between the bars of the cribs.  

We learned that many of them wouldn’t make it. Heavy tears rolled down my face.  I glanced at my friends, and I felt a mild relief as I noticed I was not the only one bursting into tears.  The nurse told us it was okay to hold the babies, and we did.  The babies clung to our arms, and didn’t want to let go.  Then some began crying when placed back in the cribs. We discreetly wiped our tears away, and continued our tour, speechless.

We went upstairs to the floor for disabled kids.  It was a different panorama.  Happy faces, joyful voices and many laughters unfolded in front of us.  What a fresh air!  We met sister Guadalupe, an amazing and devoted woman with a heart of gold.  She spoke with passion, and emphasized about these kids being ‘the poorest of the poor,’ yet living a life with dignity, treated with respect and love.  There was no doubt about this statement based on what we observed.  We went through the different rooms and identified some of the kids diagnosis: Down Syndrome, Paraplegia, Quadriplegia, Blindness, Autism, Deafness, Mental Retardation, Amputations, etc.  Several kids were in wheelchairs.  The place was clean and harmonic.  It was obvious that there was an organized schedule of therapy exercises and classes, as well as a properly supervised routine of activities.  

Besides the sisters, Haitian ladies worked in the place as caregivers. Even though these women were not professional therapists, they had been taught exercises and skills to help the kids, by therapists that visited the place.  There is a Neurologist who comes to the orphanage once a year, and sees all of the disabled kids—over one hundred kids.  The kids are supplied with medical treatments and medications.  Sister Guadalupe mentioned that this doctor, who is from India, has been pleased with the kids improvement, stating: “Whoever your God is, He is here!”

We agreed.  The presence of God was there, and so the spirit of Mother Teresa, her philosophy of love and compassion to the poorest of the poor. That was a place of miracles. 


We spent some more days in Les Cayes, enjoying time with the Espaw kids, and with people from the community. 


 We left Haiti on July 6, but we brought with us an enlightening experience which we have shared with many others.  

I have kept in contact with some of the others that went to this mission trip, and we agree in two important facts: 

                  Our lives will never be the same.

                  Our Haiti mission has just started. 

How can you help? 
Sponsor one of these kids: