January 12, 2008

Somebody's Hero

I've written a few things on here about the plight of people in nursing homes, and other health facilities. Much of it had a sense of negativity about it, I know, but I was writing from my own experiences, occurring mostly during the long period of time that I cared for my invalid mother. She was incapacitated for several years, and although a very short period of time was spent in a nursing home, that is where she received the most negligent care.

Throughout her illness she received care from Home Health Care agencies, some of which were not good, but in reading this article, I was reminded of some of the very positive aspects of it all, too.

My mother had enough health insurance to assure that she had access to all that was needed in taking proper care of her. One of the benefits was that it paid for Home Health, which is the service mentioned in this article. To be honest, I must say that most of the workers who helped to care for my mother were like the one mentioned here. On the other hand--as I've mentioned in other articles-- there were those who had no business doing what they were doing, or not doing in many cases.

Involved in Home Health care are RNs (registered nurses,) LPNs (licensed practical nurses,) and aides. It is the aides who have the most "hands on" care, and some of them are wonderful, caring, individuals who are hard workers and take great pride in what they do. Consider yourself blessed if your loved one is assigned these workers. They do become like members of the family, and the family caregivers look forward to their visits, and the respite that they offer. They come in all sizes and all colors, and you learn to love and accept them just the way they are, just as they do with the families they serve.

It is true that many horrible events occurred in the care of my mother, and I still regret that she had to endure one moment of it, but as in everything there are the bad apples, and then there are the truly dedicated ones. I appreciate the ones who helped with the care of my mother, and they still hold a special place in my heart--they are my heroes. I know that the lady written about in the following article is somebody's hero, too!

Finding her purpose: A mother's inspiration lets a caregiver ease life's toughest pains
By Georgea KovanisDetroit Free Press

Mary Graham, left, uses a comb to do Mrs. Allen's hair at her Detroit, Mich., home. Graham is a home health care aide who cares for sick people and has a wonderful relationship with their families. Photo: Hugh Grannum/MCT
It's a little before 8 a.m. when Mary Graham pulls her 1988 silver Buick Regal onto a west side street and rolls to a stop in front of a still-sleepy bungalow that is home to nine people ranging in age from just over a year to 81, and a dog she doesn't trust.
Mary is here to see Mildred Allen, the woman who raised children and grandchildren in this little house, who watched her fortunes rise and fall here, and who has become so ill from diabetes and Alzheimer's that she will probably never leave — at least not alive.
"How are you today?" Mary asks, cheerfully, hopefully even, as she leans over the bed and tries to wake up Mrs. Allen.
Mary likes to think Mrs. Allen knows her, if not by name, at least by sight. She likes to think that Mrs. Allen looks forward to her twice-weekly, hour-long visits. That Mrs. Allen, who appears lost in a fog of sleep and confusion, knows more than she lets on.
"I don't want to lay there like that. That's no quality of life," Mrs. Allen's granddaughter said one day, as she and Mary were fixing the elderly woman's bed. Mary changed the subject, just in case Mrs. Allen understood.
Mary has lifted Mrs. Allen — she would never dream of calling her by her first name — out of the bed and into a wheelchair, and is rolling her toward the shower.
"Mom, mommy," Mrs. Allen moans.
"It's all right," Mary says.
It is difficult to know when or how or where a person will find his or her life's purpose, the thing that makes being alive about more than just getting out of bed in the morning.
But this is where 51-year-old Mary Graham found hers: bathing people who are too ill to take care of themselves and are too much for their families to handle, washing away the sour stink of sickness, leaving them feeling refreshed and renewed even though their flesh may be rotting from bed sores.
There is a great demand for people who do what Mary does, though it's not a job many people want — the intimacy can be as off-putting as the pay, $11.45 an hour. Which makes experts wonder and worry about who will care for our aging population, our grandparents, parents, even our sons and daughters. Nationwide, about 3 million people work as home health care aides, nursing assistants or personal care aides. By 2017, we'll need a million more. And by 2030, when all surviving baby boomers will be at least 65, we'll need an additional 3 million.
They are in and out of sick people's houses for as long as their doctors and nurses think is necessary and as long as their insurance companies are willing to pay.
Some recover. Others don't.
The majority of Mary's patients, including Mrs. Allen, linger somewhere in between, somewhere in the twilight — that vague time of day between sunset and nightfall when the moon and the sun both occupy the sky. They are alive, but not really living. Dying, but not ready to go.
They rely on Mary to give them back a little bit of the dignity they lost a long time ago.
She relies on them, too.
They are her ties to her own mother, a link to the past.

It's a sweltering hot afternoon in July 1979 and Mary is feeling ill. She wants to take a nap, but the phone is ringing.
It's Vanessa, a girl from her mother's neighborhood, calling from a pay phone — which is odd because the neighbors always use Mary's mother's phone. Vanessa says she and her grandmother are worried because they haven't seen Mary's mother, Glaydean Oliphant, all day.
She'd just gotten home from work when the phone rang. Now she is back in her car, driving the four or so miles to her mother's place to make sure everything is OK.
Mary opens the front door and is hit by a blast of stagnant air that makes her feel as if she is suffocating.
"Mama, Mama!" she yells.
Glaydean Oliphant is sitting on the couch with her orange cat at her side. Saliva is dripping from her mouth. She is wet with sweat. Her eyes are open, but she seems to be asleep.
Mary screams for a neighbor. "Call 9-1-1! There's something wrong with Mama!"
Sickness tests people.
It breaks some, causes them to walk away.
But it also makes some people stronger. It helps them see what's important, what they can't live without, who they can't live without. And, during the summer of 1979, that's what happened to Mary.
Mrs. Oliphant, 61, had a series of strokes that left her unable to walk, struggling to talk and generally confused.
Doctors suggest a nursing home, but that made Mary uncomfortable. The strokes changed her mother, but sending her somewhere would mean losing her altogether.
She knew the best place for her mother was at home with her.
She leaves her meter-reading job and becomes her mother's full-time caregiver. "I thought she was going to get better," Mary would say years later. "She didn't get better. She didn't get any worse. She was at a standstill."
One morning in November 1986, Mary's mother grabbed her daughter's nightgown and wouldn't let go.
"What is it?" Mary asked.
Her mother looked her straight in the eyes and said, "Thank you for everything."
A few minutes later, she dies.
One of Mrs. Oliphant's visiting nurses, impressed with the way Mary cared for her mother, suggests she pursue a career as a nursing aide.
And that is the job Mary has had for the past 20 years.
She likes old people, she likes to know how couples met, and she is always impressed when she meets a husband taking care of his wife, a husband who didn't run when things went bad. It is a commitment she never had from a man. And as for who might take care of her if anything happens, she says she hasn't thought about that. She says she doesn't expect anything bad to ever happen to her.
"Mary is my girl! Mary is the best!" says Henry Washington, who is 90, lives in Detroit and has sprained his ankle. He is happy to see Mary.
Patients tell Mary they want to die and she tells them she's pretty sure God has every single person here for a reason. If they start questioning that reason, or start questioning God, Mary will say, "I can't help you on that because I got to stand in front of him too, one day."
She believes in Heaven, which she hopes is like Hawaii. But even if it's not, she knows the hospice patient is better off now. He isn't suffering anymore.
Sometimes, she says, "I look at my patients and I say them a prayer. I say, 'I hope they see my mom."'

I have just one more thing to say about this article: "God Bless you, Mary Graham."