During my career working in long term care facilities, I had the opportunity to take care of many WWII, Korean, and Vietnam War Veterans. As I stayed in the business longer, I eventually took care of Desert Storm and even a few Iraq War veterans. Taking care of the old guys was always a lot easier for me than having a young resident on my assignment. The young folks always broke my heart. There was one name in particular I always dreaded seeing on my report sheet.
HIPPA and a basic sense of decorum prevent me from sharing much about the Marine, other than that his body had been ravaged in a motor vehicle accident during Operation Desert Shield. He was twenty-two years old when he suffered a traumatic brain injury that rendered him paraplegic and unable to communicate through anything other grunts and eye blinks. After his injury, his parents were unable to take care of him at home, and this young man ended up in a long-term-care facility.
He had lived in the same room for 10 years when I met him. The small space was cramped with medical equipment and paraphernalia necessary to take care of his many physical needs. His emotional needs were difficult to assess, due to his profound communication barriers. You never knew if he was happy, but he was able to let you know if he wasn’t by growl-grunting until he was beet red in the face and exhausted. It was scary when he was upset, and often difficult and time-consuming to find the cause of his discomfort.
I was rushing through my assignment, once again short-staffed and under the gun to give an impossible amount of care in an impossibly short amount of time. I breezed into the Marine’s room, whipped through his personal care, and prepared to get him in his wheelchair for the day. My co-worker and I had just gotten him settled into the chair, which was an arduous task in itself, and were about to make our way out of the room when he started his unhappy growl-grunt.
Frankly, this is the part where I have to admit to something I’m ashamed of. I was busy, we had just taken 45 minutes getting him propped, strapped and settled into the chair, and I didn’t have time for one of his “fits.” I was annoyed as I re-checked all the pillows and braces. None of the adjustments I made alleviated his consternation. Exasperated, I stepped back, threw my hands up, and said, “I’m not sure what’s wrong, buddy, but I can’t deal with it right now.” I turned to leave the room, and noticed the little American flag we hung on his door had come off and was laying on the floor. The minute I picked it up, the Marine stopped growling, and I realized the flag on the ground was the trigger for his episode.
I learned a huge lesson about the importance of respect and remembering why this young man had ended up living the rest of his life in a condition most of us cannot even fathom. He cared enough about that flag to remain protective of it, even after giving so much for it. He was a Marine, and no matter the condition of his body, his heart and soul would always be that of a Marine.
I am eternally grateful for those who have sacrificed so much for my personal freedom.
Happy Veteran’s Day, 2016.