remembering henry

poppiesLong ago, when I was twenty and still in university, I worked in a Veteran’s Home as a Nursing Attendant. I’d often work mornings helping the staff get the men up and ready for the day – and then run across campus to my English class, dressed in my nursing uniform and white nylons.

I’m remembering that experience today. Nursing Attendants are true bedside workers. We were the ones who worked directly with the gentlemen on the nursing unit – many of whom required extensive care. We cleaned up things that the housekeeping staff wouldn’t touch. But we also had the luxury of time to spend with the veterans, as we helped them get dressed, or patiently helped feed them meals.

Nobody talked about the War. At the time, there was even a World War I veteran at the Vet’s Home – but there were many veterans from World War II and Korea. While the war was in the distant past, it lived with these men every day.  These were just ordinary men who had found themselves in terrible circumstances. The scars from those war-time experiences often were manifested in estranged families, whispers of abusive behaviour and alcoholism. I remember helping men to bed after their return from the Legion, reeking of whiskey, and slurring their words.

But that wasn’t the whole story. The wars had affected a cross-section of the population of men, and there were many dignified, lovely residents at the Veteran’s Home. They enjoyed the company of the young nurses who where there to support them, and many of them reminded me of my own grandpa. It was important for the staff to remember that these ‘residents’ were also fathers, granddads, brothers and sons.

There were many stories of kindness at the Vet’s Home. My clearest memory was one winter, when I was working nights. On night shift, there was a lot of sitting around at the nursing desk, waiting to respond to call bells. Every few hours we would have rounds, where we would quietly walk through the unit, checking on the men, emptying urinals, and turning those who were immobile so they wouldn’t get bedsores.

One night, my patient assignment included an elderly man named Henry. He was in the last stages of life, and his breathing was increasingly noisy and laboured.  He had no family or friends to visit him in his final hours. After our first set of rounds, I excused myself from the desk to sit beside his bed.  Henry had yelled and sworn at me in the past, but all that didn’t matter now. His hand had paper-thin skin, and I held it softly through the wee hours of the night. It was a long shift. When I left at 7 am, I said a quiet good-bye and gave him a gentle kiss on his forehead.  I did not look back when I left the room.

I read Henry’s obituary in the paper a few days later.

I learned many things from working at that Vet’s Home. One was to duck fast if something was being thrown at you.   My other realization was that health care is really about acts of kindness.   And that no man should ever die alone.

Lest we forget.

(I wrote this in 2013, and republish it every November 11).

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