Sunday, April 17, 2016

Where the poor go to die

Last week I participated in an evening vigil for a woman (let's call her Laura, not her real name) in one of our sadder local nursing homes.

I've been to this location a few times, and each time I come away from the experience really and truly depressed. Not because the patient is dying -- we all will have to do that -- but because this facility is so very different from others I've visited. This place is where the indigent and lonely go to die.

My volunteer coordinator informed me ahead of time that Laura had no family, none at all, no one to sit with her. Entering her room, I noticed how different it was from other rooms I'd sat vigil in recently: there were no flowers, no family photos; the walls were blank; the TV, which was not on, was a small portable resembling one I had in the 1970s; and there was no electric light, aside from the typical fluorescent fixture found above hospital beds. I left it off.

It was 6:30 when I arrived, so there was plenty of natural light to see by. Sitting near Laura and holding her hand,  I watched out the west-facing window as a beautiful sunset took shape, casting a lovely pink light into the room and over the bed. It was the only spot of beauty other than Laura herself, who had a gorgeous head of pure-white hair, and calm, lovely features.

But only Laura's room was calm. In the room next door, the patient spent quite a while singing what sounded like the theme song from Flipper, over and over again, in a passable bass-baritone. Out in the hallway, meanwhile, another patient, in a high, screeching voice, cried over and over that she had no idea where she was, and that she knew the bad people were after her. She was clearly confused and terrified. This continued for the better part of an hour before staff were able to calm her.

It breaks my heart that folks without resources end up in situations like this. I know the staff does its best. But I saw only one nurse that evening, who came in to re-position Laura in the bed, to check her diaper, and to administer oral morphine.

I don't know what the answer is. I know care has to be paid for, and that the poor get a minimum of care. Many facilities (and, I suspect, this one) also seem understaffed, and so  that minimum of care becomes even more perfunctory.

I wish I had an answer, but I don't. As the evening went on, the light grew dimmer, and I finally had to switch on the fluorescent light over the other bed in the room, which was empty. It cast a glaring light which made the room look even less comfortable and welcoming. Laura's breaths seemed farther apart, but then she rallied and breathed normally.

Laura did not die on my watch, and even that made me sad. I so wanted her to leave the place behind and fly away, free.

1 comment:

Seeking the Holy Spiritual Direction said...

Thanks, Judy--well said. Are you allowed to bring a tool kit to help with ambiance, like CD player/CDs, soft desk lamp? And thanks for your witness to the full personhood of those at end of life.