By Kathy Farace
(Victor Valley)–One of my first patients was a lady who resided at a Skilled Nursing Facility in one of the many rough parts of town of San Bernardino. She was in her eighty’s and had end stage dementia. As her chaplain, the family whom lived out of state requested that I make routine weekly visits. I believe it was mostly to make them feel better for their absents, as our team and the staff at the Skilled Nursing Facility was the only contact this woman had. Apparently she had a history in the Baptist church where she had been very involved most of her life. I don’t know what led her to be in this facility so far away from family or friends but it seemed all were waiting for her to die.
Doris laid in the fetal position in her private room and never moved without assistance. She could not have weighed more than 75 pounds dripping wet. She was contracted; non verbal, no voluntary movement, no eye tracking and constantly battling bed sores. Due to her lack of responses the staff believed she lost her ability to hear. She broke my heart. I just couldn’t understand why God would not release her from her breath so she would no longer have to suffer.
I would visit once a week, sit by her bed, read some scriptures, tell her about the weather or some other unimportant trivia, say a little prayer and then leave. Five months later I was still making these same visits. I would leave her room get in my car and beg God to take her to heaven. My after visit prayers eventually became firm discussions with God as to what in the world was he doing with this poor lady who had no quality of life. I felt like my time was a waste. I couldn’t help her at all. Where was the value in what I was doing? Bottom line I felt helpless. Finally my frustration got the best of me and my prayers turned into wordless tears. This is when I finally discovered empathy.
I called her daughter and asked her about her mom. I learned about what Doris used to like and stories of special memories. Instead of worrying about what I was going to do at this visit I decided to just be present in the moment with Doris. Now that I had a clearer idea of who she is, I held her hand with both of mine and I looked her in the eyes even though I was received with a blank stare. I talked to her about her family and her love of birds and some of the few things I had learned about her, still unsure if she could even hear me. On a whim I decided to sing to her Jesus Loves Me assured that if she was able, she would recognize the song despite my singing capabilities and then something happened. She squeezed my hand, just slightly but it was movement.
I started to visit her 2-3 times a week and would purpose to be present with her if only for a little while. I could talk to her about anything but with my hands wrapped around hers she would only gently squeeze every time I read the scripture, sang a little church song or prayed. I tested my theory out visit after visit. Our spirits were connecting, somehow, some way, we were connecting. I looked forward to my visits with Doris and soon realized I wasn’t there for her, she was here for me.
Nine months 2 weeks and 2 days after first meeting Doris, I like to think that she soared like a beautiful bird in flight to her final rest. She taught me so much about myself, the value of life, the walk of empathy and the reality of God’s existence.
I have met countless patients that may seem to have no need for my visits and so have you. I encourage you to never underestimate the power of presence, human contact, and a gentle caring voice.