Recipe for Success
A young nurse is taught patience (and a few things about cooking) by her first patient.
Weeks after my graduation from nursing school, I still couldn’t find a hospital job. I couldn’t wait to put my studies to practical use and start helping others. In a way it felt like my education was only beginning. Or it would begin, if only a hospital would hire me.
Meantime I took a job providing home care to a lady named Millie.
Millie had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was in a wheelchair, unable to move or talk, and she didn’t have long to live. There was no hope for improvement. “We know she’ll never do the things she used to,” Millie’s husband, Thurber, told me my first day on the job.
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I looked around Millie’s living room. It was full of evidence of the life she used to lead: pictures of her and Thurber with their daughters on cruises, needlepoint pillows that must have taken months to make. Millie had obviously been a person who made the most of every single day.
I couldn’t give any of that back to her, so what was I doing here? What can I learn from a job like this? I thought.
“Millie likes having someone to talk to,” Thurber said. My face must have shown surprise—Millie couldn’t talk. “We have a system,” Thurber explained.
“Go through the alphabet. When you get to the letter she wants, she’ll blink once. Write all the letters down. When you’ve spelled a complete word, Millie will blink twice.”
“I’ll try,” I promised. But the process was so slow, I discovered in the coming days, I kept talking to a minimum. Just getting Millie fed was an ordeal. Her choices were fairly limited to soup and shakes, liquids she could suck through a straw.
Lord, this patient is not going to recover, I prayed as I arrived at Millie’s house one afternoon. She’s hopeless. I want to find a job where I can learn to be a better nurse.
But until I found that job, I had made a commitment to Millie. When I put my purse down on the kitchen table I noticed a pile of papers, notes from an earlier conversation between her and Thurber. I flipped through them, amazed at the effort that went into them.
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Whenever I tried to go through the alphabet with Millie I couldn’t stop myself from trying to guess what she wanted before she finished. More often than not I just wound up confused.
Today I’ll try Thurber’s way, I told myself. No matter how long it takes. After all, it wasn’t as if I had other patients to attend to, or medicine to give out. This wasn’t the hospital.
At dinnertime I went to the cupboard. “What kind of soup would you like?” I asked. “Bean and bacon? Cream of chicken?” Let Millie tell you what she wants, I reminded myself. It was just so much easier to reel it all off myself.
I picked up the notepad and took a deep breath. “A…” Millie blinked. That was easy enough. I started again. This time she chose “P.” AP? I thought. There are no soups that start with AP. She must want apple sauce. I itched to grab the apple sauce jar, but I’d vowed to let her spell out the entire request.
Her next letter proved me wrong about the apple sauce. I was glad I hadn’t jumped the gun.
“Apricot chicken?” I said finally. “That can’t be right, can it? Do you really want apricot chicken, Millie? You can’t eat solid food.”
I went through the alphabet again. The process was just as slow the second time around, but it was a lot more interesting when I knew Millie’s answer could surprise me. It was more like having a real conversation. “Blender,” she said.