Today is National Teacher’s Day. My life has been enriched by many teachers through the years. I would like to thank them all for helping to shape me into the woman I am. But I would especially like to express gratitude to a new friend – a teacher who taught me important lessons of perseverance and strength this year when I was facing new challenges.
I met Mary Frances shortly after my arrival at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital on January 27. I was sprawled on my bed, waiting for the next doctor to assess me, counting down the hours until I could take more pain medicine. The nurse was attempting to make my broken leg more comfortable by rearranging the pillows while giving me information about the unit. She looked up as a woman was wheeled into the room saying, “And here’s your roommate, Mary Frances.”
Hello. How are you? Welcome to rehab.
The sonorous voice modulated in pitch and prosody, the syllables elongated – a technique I used to teach my clients when I worked as a speech-language pathologist. Mary Frances sat regally in her institutional chrome wheelchair, feet firmly planted on the foot pedals. Her slightly askew smile lit her face and the twinkle in her eye told me we were definitely going to cause a ruckus together.
My years of employment in a variety of healthcare facilities gave me multiple opportunities to observe the social interactions between patients and their roommates. The right roommate can make or break your rehabilitation experience. Negative roommates or those who complain nonstop can make recovery more taxing for the people on the other side of the curtain.
Mary Frances was the best roommate I could hope for. She was optimistic, intelligent, determined, and talkative. We bonded quickly as we shared our respective stories. Mary Frances was recuperating from a stroke which had affected both her fine and gross motor skills as well as her speech and language. Like me, she was learning to do everyday tasks a new way.
The two of us connected over the silliest rehab moments – things which were incredibly meaningful to us but perhaps not to an outsider. She was seated on the other side of the curtain the first time my occupational therapist and I attempted to use a slide board to transfer me onto a bedside commode. I can only imagine what we sounded like as we struggled to find the right positions and hand holds. When my session was over, mission successfully accomplished, I saw that same gleam in her eye as she congratulated me.
You peed on the potty like a big girl!
Each night, we watched Jeopardy! together. Mary Frances didn’t mind me blurting out the answers to questions. A former teacher, she did well on the literature and history questions. She also beat me on most of the pop culture questions, even with her speech delay.
Mary Frances was determined to do her best every day. She challenged herself in her rehabilitation, often working on hand exercises during down time in our room. One afternoon I returned from the therapy gym to find her making faces at herself in a small hand-held mirror. She attempted to excuse herself for what she assumed must look like silly behavior. I laughed at her, and asked to see her speech therapy homework. Thus began our daily routine of extra speech and language assistance. We spoke to Mary France’s speech-language pathologist who agreed extra practice would be wonderful, as long as it reinforced what they were working on in therapy sessions.
Mary Frances wasn’t my client and I knew it was unethical for me to act as her therapist. However, having the opportunity to use my clinical knowledge to help her provided a reminder that I was more than just a patient. At night when we practiced conversation repair, word finding techniques or facial exercises, I was able to escape from my own pain and injury for a brief time. I felt better because I was helping a friend who was making improvements each day.
Patients at Sunnyview are welcome to move independently about the facility as long as they have been cleared by therapy and nursing. Once cleared, you are given a green wrist band to indicate your freedom of movement. Not knowing this rule, I had been wandering the halls for two days before receiving my green tag. Mary Frances received her green tag a couple days later. We would go down to the cafeteria together for real coffee (Starbucks, not the kind they sent to our rooms on the morning trays). If she was too tired to wheel herself down the carpeted hallway, I sat closely alongside her so she could grab my handlebar, giving her a tow with my power wheelchair. Staff laughed at us before they realized they probably shouldn’t encourage this behavior. We ignored their warnings. Although we worked diligently, we both knew how to be non-compliant at times.
Mary Frances was self-conscious about her oral weakness and took steps to eat without drooling her food and beverage down her clothes. A few days before her discharge, we sat in our room eating roasted peanuts. Mary Frances concentrated all her energy on using her weaker hand to pick up the individual nuts and put them in her mouth. I asked Mary Frances if I could write about her and our rehabilitation adventures on my blog. She stilled her hand, swallowed her mouthful, and thoughtfully gave me verbal consent. I thanked her, then made a comment about how well she was doing eating the nuts without drooling.
Survivors adapt. Other people drool. Put that in your blog!
Survivors adapt. Two simple words with a meaning much more complicated and nuanced.
Thank you Mary Frances for helping me adapt to my new normal. Your encouragement and optimistic support made my rehab journey fun, something I never considered as a possibility. I am grateful for your friendship and so happy we have kept in touch. You continue to inspire me with your progress and improvement.
Today is Mary Frances’ birthday. She is celebrating with family, something she was not certain would be possible while we were together at Sunnyview. Happy birthday Mary Frances – may your day be full of love and laughter.