Sunday, January 23, 2005

When's the Last Time You Showered with 2 Women?

This post may net a few Googlers who have something entirely different in mind when they search for "women in showers" but there's nothing Girls Gone Wild about this one. So if you're here for such a stop on your journey, click away, you're going to be disappointed.

I volunteer at an AIDS hospice. Yesterday I met a 32 year old mother of three whose husband gave her the disease then left town and left her off his group insurance. Sounds like a fine fellow, doesn't he? Now she's awaiting a spot in a nursing home since she's truly not bad enough to be in a hospice but with the left side of her body paralyzed, she can't care for herself either. So we're the in-between place while folks who do this kind of thing hunt for a more permanent space.

When I arrived, I was told she needed a shower. When my friend and cohort arrived we prepared for the experience. Except, really, how does one prepare for something like this? Remember . . . we're not professionals. We've been doing this for almost ten years but we aren't there on a weekly basis, more like monthly. So, yes, while I once helped moved a paralyzed six ft seven inch man from bed to bed chair, I wasn't exactly studied-up on all that was involved in working with those who can only partially help themselves.

First mistake . . . I mentioned that inexperience.

I thought that with her independence having been ripped from her, she might enjoy giving some orders and that by telling her she should direct me, I was giving her a gift of some kind. What I did was scare her. She knew, just knew, that my friend and I were going to drop her, allow her to fall out of the shower chair, or cut her with the razor. She knew it.

We made it through the disrobing and transfer of wheelchair to shower chair fairly well so I thought we'd perhaps reassured her but no, that was not to be. Instead when we arrived in the shower room (barely enough space for the three of us and the chair and the various showering articles that are needed for shampooing, conditioning, shaving, et al.), the tension began mounting. The water temperature wasn't cooperating, the shower chair was secure enough, I slipped in a puddle prior to bending for yet another adjustment in the chair, as I bent over to position myself for shaving her legs (rather difficult while wearing latex gloves) the water from the shower head had a sudden leak and my pants were completely soaked.

But we accomplished the goal. Wet and weary, we shampooed those long locks, shaved those long legs, and insured that she maintained as much of her dignity as possible when you're the only one sitting naked in a room of strangers.

I worked up a sweat when we arrived back in the room to put on her clothes and work through the tangles. I tackled the lined sweat pants (did you know that you need to treat such pants like panty hose in order to get a paralyzed leg all the way through without tangling it up in the material?) and my buddy took on the hair. One HOUR after we started, she was dressed and coifed and I was dripping from both my forehead and the seat of my pants.

At some point, we didn't exactly gain her confidence but we did gain something. She seemed to see more than our awkwardness, hear more than our questions, and feel more than our anxiety. She grasped that we thought ourselves no better or worse than she, and throughout the day, she called me by name -- a great gift when often we are simply, "Volunteer! I need a volunteer."

We were getting her ready for a visit from her children. But three hours later they hadn't yet arrived and after a few calls, she thought perhaps the arrangements for transportation had fallen through and that she might not see them at all on this day. My heart broke to see her 90 pound frame -- which I had earlier held in my arms as her sole support -- sitting alone in that huge recliner, resigned to yet another disappointment. And I wanted to take her in my arms again . . . give her . . . I don't know . . . something more than one hour of exertion, something more than what simply had to be done, something of me.

Instead, I looked into her eyes and said goodbye. My shift was over.

1 comment:

Jean said...

It amazes me, the strength of the human heart. I dare not compare myself to the bravery of the woman you describe, but I can say that when I was recovering from surgery and Julie, a woman I know and love, had to help me get a shower and empty the catheter, I was embarassed and timid. I can't imagine if she had been a stranger. At least the nurses at the hospital were getting paid for their services, when I lost control of my bowels I cried, but in the end figured they were used to it. With Julie and with the nurses, they could have made me feel bad about where I was, but they worked to help me accept my position. And that meant more to me than any physical act.

Then I recall my highschool days and working at the nursing home with what I lovingly call "the forgotten generation". Those too old to live alone and too young to forget the family who no longer visits them. I remember that in those situations it always begins a bit awkwardly. There is always a moment of uncertainty.

But you give hope. You give love. It is your spirit and your giving of yourself that brings, even just a moments peace to these people. It is your perseverence even when at first she is afraid that brings her to a place of acceptance. And in return you can know you make all the difference in the world.