Friday, December 25, 2015

Ruminations On Christmas Day


I saw a one-click headline the other day where Kim Kardashian announced that she wants to eat her placenta. I doubt that she is conducting an anthropological study on protein and self-cannibalism. In this Orwellian version of our world these one-click headlines are created to induce the masses to spend and spend after our slack-jawed oh-my-god reactions elevate our interest and our blood pressure. From my admittedly limited view, I find Kim Kardashian repugnant, no matter if she wants to eat her placenta or not. Kim Kardashian is living proof that in America someone with a pretty face, no brains, and a professional publicity team working on her behalf can become both famous and filthy rich. Her clothing line and “reality” television show has reaped her millions. Is that the American dream?

I have spent most of my adult life working in the non-clinical sector of the healthcare industry, all while nudging along a modest and generally under-the-radar freelance writing career. I’m one of the lucky ones. The most important thing I have learned about our healthcare system comes from the nursing professionals I have known. This is quite simple: no one should die alone. Life is far too rare, and too precious that we should turn our backs on each other. We should strive for better rehabilitation systems, educational processes to promote literacy, and healthcare initiatives that prolong our quality of life. Even media whores like Kim Kardashian will deserve that level of engagement when her body begins to shut down and she finds herself withering away in a sterile hospital bed with a catheter inserted into her bladder and her diaper is changed three times a day by a nameless caregiver.

Recently, my father’s health problems resulted in the necessity for a stay in a nursing care facility. After a few days of visits, and as the result of observing the daily routine, I initiated the habit of speaking with and acknowledging the other patients. Nursing homes and rehab facilities are not necessarily depressing, although the financial burden they impose on the average family is enormous. I think it all depends on your attitude. Not everyone is as lucky as my father to have regular visitors. These people have nothing to do but sit in their wheelchairs waiting for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or to die, whichever comes first. Because I have been in nursing homes countless times, I am accustomed to the vacant stares, drool speckled chins, and the endless stench of urine and feces. These are things we don’t like talking about. Don’t we all hope to die happily in our own beds one day after a long and healthy life? But it doesn’t work that way for most people. You can kid yourselves all day and say – “That’ll never happen to me!” or “That only happens to other people!” until the day you wake up in a strange room with an overworked and underpaid nursing assistant wiping the feces from your buttocks and trying to make you comfortable.

Eating the placenta is trendy among practitioners of holistic healthcare. It involves freeze-drying the placenta and having it pressed into pill form. I am not aware of any qualified research studies that validate its benefits, but that doesn’t matter. Kim Kardashian only used the topic as a means to generate publicity. She is among the many media whores like Leah Remini who have a publicity machine in place ensuring that their names are on everyone’s lips. These are the types of celebrities who only visit the cancer ward of a children’s hospital after ensuring the media will photograph the event to maximize their publicity impact. 

We are lucky that our healthcare industry exists even with its many flaws. My point is this: Nurses and caregivers are the heart and soul of what this country needs more of, and the problems they face in doing their jobs properly with affordable healthcare for everyone is a far more interesting topic to me than Kim Kardashian eating her placenta. So I engage people in conversation, and they smile. They share a few memories. This is what they want; that personal contact, an acknowledgment that someone sees them. Try it sometime. Suddenly the vacant stares are replaced by a nostalgic memory. Maybe that cancer-stricken woman in the wheelchair will recall her first young love, some handsome beau who taught her how to dance. Maybe she’ll remember Elvis or The Beatles, and she’ll smile talking about the songs and the good times they had. My mother still talks about seeing Frank Sinatra at the Oriental Theater in Chicago in the 40s; and she recalls with clarity seeing Roy Rogers and Trigger on stage for some event. That’s when the timbre of her voice changes, and that’s when I see her happy again.

I pay an emotional toll each day watching people I love struggle with health issues. Seeing them decline simultaneously is a challenge and each day I have to remind myself to keep it together. I tell myself: Be like the Man of Steel. Don’t let them see you crumble. But there are good things that I see every day. I have seen the volunteers from The Salvation Army bring smiles to people with their visits and simple gifts. The Salvation Army, incidentally, is the only organized religious charity that pays regular and meaningful visits to nursing homes in McHenry County. The Salvation Army is certainly one of the few organized Christian groups that I respect.

My father dreams of the past, and because of the advanced stage of his Parkinson’s Disease, he often becomes confused. He believes that a blind Italian man has moved in next door and steals cars. He believes that we all live in the same building and just down the hall from each other. He believes that a small group of ragamuffin boys live in our backyard tool shed. He says that they stole his arc welder and other tools. He sometimes asks me for his .45 Colt automatic so he can shoot these “strange animals and snakes” that come through the window every morning (it’s locked in my gun-cabinet). But he also has lucid moments. He recalls with clarity his father’s Catholicism, and his mother’s cold shoulder toward church-going. He recalls his boyhood friend, Harold Wiley, apparently a bit of an oddball, and how he ran his motorcycle into the rear-end of a Chicago squad car and got thrown into the hoosegow. He remembers trying to join the Navy with Harold in 1942 and being rejected because he was thirteen years old. He can also recall his dog tag number from his U.S. Army induction in 1950.

I often engage the staff, too. Their “job” is often more than that, and the better ones know what the word “caregiving” really means. I tell them how much I appreciate their effort, and I am heartbreakingly sincere. Where would we be without them? I love to see them smile. If you read this post, please thank a nurse, or a nursing assistant, or a physical therapist, social worker and food attendant and any other staff. The entire staff of our hospitals and nursing homes are doing the job that many of you don’t want to talk about as you obsess over the latest one-click headline.

It’s Christmas morning and I am leaving in a few moments to go see my father, and then I will go see my mother. I am determined to make someone smile with my bad jokes, and to do whatever I can to help out. For those few of you that actually read this, I wish you peace and prosperity. I wish all of you, peace and love and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, including all of the hateful people on the Internet, and the placenta eating Kim Kardashian, Empress of the Talentless Celebrities, and may joy and happiness follow all of you into the New Year.

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