How Was Your Shift?

*Details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients

She is 61 and she can’t help but smack her lips together repetitively. She has no teeth and the curvature of her spine makes her a miniature version of what she once was. Her frizzy hair is a purple-gray tone, and there are dark particles of something in the knots alongside her left temple. Her clothes are too loose and there are food stains on her shirt. The ambulance arrived at her home and there were pills strewn all over her floor and scattered pill bottles. She tells me that it wasn’t her. That someone had been in her apartment. That they were putting different pills in those bottles that weren’t hers. That pills were showing up on her floor. She was being followed when she went places. Her lips smacked harder as her anxiety mounted. She had to flush all the pills down the toilet because they weren’t her pills and so she didn’t have her own to take.   I ask if there is family I may call.  She stares back at me with hollowed eyes and does not respond.  She had just been released from the hospital a week ago for paranoid thoughts, but it is clear she will need to come back in.

He is 70 and his anxiety is like a storm cloud exploding in the room. He is overwhelmed because he cannot pay the bills and someone has stolen his identity. His furnace is broken and he is afraid the pipes will explode. He is concerned there is a carbon monoxide leak in their home and they are all being poisoned. At times he cannot speak because he is so overcome with his panic. He stutters and spits and cannot get the words out. I hold his hand and rock it back and forth as if to relieve the tremors that riddle his body.  I tell him it is okay over and over as I hold on; at times he appears momentarily calmed and is again able to speak until the next wave of emotions takes prey over him. His family arrives, and there are tears of fear, pain and love filling their eyes. None of this is real. No one has stolen his identity.  There are no broken furnaces and no carbon monoxide leaks. He paces at home and cannot eat or sleep. They have even called the fire department to the house to prove to him that there is no carbon monoxide leak. But it has not helped. These delusions have become his reality.

He is 57 and drinks every day and lives on the streets. He comes in one to two times a week for pain. Sometimes, he says his pain is so bad he wants to shoot himself. He says he has guns at his son’s house. This time he said he fell and his hip hurts. I help him take his pants off and he smells of urine and stool. Where can he go to take a shower? There are no bruises, scrapes, or cuts, but I x-ray his hip and there are no fractures. He says he won’t actually shoot himself if he can have a sandwich and bus tokens to go. He asks for a sandwich and bus tokens with every visit. He says his pain is 10 out of 10 and immediately falls asleep. It is the warmest and quietest place he will sleep until he comes back next week.

He is 20 and he overdosed on heroin. He was not breathing when the ambulance arrived. They gave him medication and resuscitated him and now his heart is racing and he looks bewildered as if he is on fire with anger. He says he knows it is dangerous. He has seen his friend dead in a car from a heroin overdose with the needle still in his arm. Maybe this is his rock bottom. I ask him if he is ready for me to help him get help so he doesn’t die too. He was really close this time. He says he understands what I am saying and he appreciates it. He says he is ready to stop, but he just doesn’t need help today.

These were four people I met on my evening shift last night. There are endless more stories like theirs. I don’t know where they were before they got to here, but I know life has not handed them anything. Their days are constant, steep uphill climbs. It may be addiction. It may be mental illness. It may be violence. It may be homelessness. It clasps its grip around them and won’t let them go. Day to day it swallows them and pulls them back down deep. There is little voice that advocates for and represents them. There is endless judgment that looks down upon them.

Friends and family will ask me how my shift went. I often don’t know what to say. Sometimes I feel I can help and do great things. Sometimes it is a vat of endless hopeless stories in a system with limited resources that continually seems to fail in one way or another. We will keep showing up and keep doing what we can, but it certainly is not enough.

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The MIA Parent

In hushed voices, I heard them. The seven-year-old boy stood, still in full practice hockey gear, hockey helmet pressed against the window of the double doors, waiting for an adult to arrive. “His mom is never here, poor thing.” came one hushed whisper. “If I knew which bag was his, I’d help him change myself!” came the hushed response back.

This parent thing is a hustle, isn’t it? Making it on time to this hockey practice, to this football game, to gymnastics practice. Remembering to pack a cardboard cereal box for the next school project, remembering to buy Valentine’s cards for the school Valentine’s party. Remembering to sign permission slips and pay for the school party. RSVP’ing to your son’s school friend’s birthday party, then hurrying to the store the day before to buy a birthday gift. Not forgetting to pack the mid-morning school snack when packing the lunch you made last night. Buying the right dance shoes for your daughter’s dance competitions. Getting new skates for your son’s growing feet. New snow pants for your seven-year-old daughter that has been squeezing into too tight pants for an embarrassingly long amount of time. Having dinner ready. Making sure your kids have their shoes and boots for school. And a hat. And gloves. Lining up all drop-offs and pick-ups so your kids are never the late ones or the last ones to get picked up.

Maybe your hustle looks different than my hustle, but it is all in the wizadry of scheduling and mental notes floating in our minds when it all falls into place day after day after day.

Listening to those moms at that hockey practice, I felt a pang in my heart. I felt a pang in my heart for the multitude of times I was that MIA mom. When I am that mom that cannot drop off and pick up my daughter at dance practice. When I cannot stay and watch my son play football. When I cannot be the one to pick them up or drop them off at school. When I could not be there at their 1st grade winter party. That time I almost missed my 3-year-old’s first daycare program and nearly broke my back figuring out a way to make it there.

That MIA mom has been me time and time again. But I do want to make one thing clear. I am not always there, but I am always there. I packed the snack in my daughter’s dance bag, I counted her shoes to make sure she had her jazz, ballet, tap shoes. I laid out those dance clothes you see her wearing. I made sure my son had his mouth guard, full water bottle, and flag football jersey and all flags accounted for and laid out on his bed before I left for work. I pre-prepare dinner for my kids, even when I cannot be there to eat with them. I laid out their boots, coats, hats, gloves in front of the garage door, I fastened their snowpants to their backpacks. I packed my daughter’s daycare pillow and blanket for naptime and hung it on the door. I hunted down the school library books in the darkness and jammed it into my son’s bookbag all before I hurried out the door for work at 6 am. You may not always see me, but I am always there.

My physical absence has no correlation with how much I care about my children. No matter where I am, my presence and heart are always with my family. All of our families look different. But the bottom line is that we cannot compare or judge one another by our outer appearances. We all have different capacities and priorities come in all different forms. They come in the form of work, in the form of aging parents, in the form of friends, in the form of spouses or single parenting, or other siblings. Everyone’s circus is made differently.

Two weeks ago, I was in Whistler, Canada with my husband. He was the chair of a conference, and I, along with friends, were along for the ski adventures that laid on those gorgeous mountains. I ran into a friend who asked me if this was the first time I had left my children behind for an extended period of time. It was not. I explained to her that while it was not without its flurry of emotions of guilt, anxiety, sadness to leave my children at home, it was also with excitement, happiness, and anticipation that I looked forward to dedicating undivided attention to my husband and friends. I explained that I felt it was healthy for my kids to realize that the world did not revolve around them. That I loved them intensely and loved spending as much time with them as possible, but I am also committed to tending to the other parts of my life that make my life full and make me a whole person. She tilted her head, mind blown, and said, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Sometimes it is out of our control. I have to go to work when I have to go to work. But sometimes, a night out or a weekend away is something worth prioritizing. The bottom line is my life revolves around my kids, but it also revolves around showing them the strength of who I am as an individual and reminding them that they are one part of a greater world around them.

I believe that we all want to be there for our kids, the best we can. The best we can sometimes means we are late to pick them up from hockey practice because their younger sibling has gymnastics practice across town that consistently runs late. The best we can might mean we have a baby-sitter take them to dance practice when I work predominately evenings. The best we can might mean we spend a weekend away with our spouse to care for our marriage. The best we can might mean clearing our day to volunteer at their 1st grade Valentine’s Day party. The best we can might mean saying no to a work meeting to be there for our daughter’s first dance competition.

Being the MIA mom does not mean you are not doing the best you can. I know that better than anyone. So, to that MIA hockey mom or dad. I see you and your presence in your son’s well-fitting hockey helmet, jersey, and skates. I know you are present and the best you can do with your circus is absolute perfection to me.