“Does THIS look better to you?!” she raged, pointing to her leg, “It’s supposed to be ELEVATED. Does this look elevated?”

I smiled weakly, made a note: The lady in room 15 is not up for small talk.

Room 15 arrived at The Fortress the day after my admission, looking small, pained, and bewildered. I’ve worn that post-surgical they-didn’t-say-it-would-be-THIS-bad look myself; she had my sympathy.

Today she’d finally wheeled to her doorway, looking out into the hall. I’d given her a cheery “Hey, you look much better!” and she’d cut loose, eyes narrowing to angry pinpoints.

Oooops.

The Fortress is a post-acute care facility, a halfway house for the medically challenged. Its residents have healed past the point of hospital-acute, but aren’t stable enough to go home.

Their average age is well into the 80s; many have one or more catastrophic health issues that will keep them from ever going home. Their family and social workers fret and fuss and cajole, talking assisted living and “rest homes.”

That, apparently, was to be Room 15’s fate, and she resented the hell out of it. My room was right across the hall, and the words floating out her open door into mine told the story: 98 years old, busted hip, possible blood clot, terrified family.

They’d fill her room with quiet pleading she didn’t want to hear. “You don’t TRUST me anymore,” she’d say bitterly, to hasty disclaimers, “I’ve taken care of you all of our lives, and now you don’t trust me.”

How the heck do you put a positive spin on catastrophe? It’s not like I could help, so mostly I smiled and kept my mouth shut.

Besides, I’m the opposite end of the spectrum; I’m going home. I’m doing interval training in a wheelchair, racing down the halls. I have so much they don’t, and I’m not facing end-of-life decisions with a bad heart, sticky valves, invading clots, tumors, and a fading mind.

Kinda makes you feel guilty, in a place like this.

Not kidding; if you ever start feeling sorry for yourself, head right down to the nearest post-acute care center and walk the halls.* In ten minutes, your good-luck meter will swing firmly to the positive.

Thursday morning. Discharge morning: I’m going home! I get in one pre-discharge run (well, wheel) down the hall…and overhear the doctor talking to Room 15.

“We need to find a more comfortable way to elevate your leg on the leg rest; maybe a pillow underneath?”

I take a chance, wheel up alongside, and show the leg rest Mom and I made.

“Excuse me, but this works pretty well for me: You just get a piece of hardboard and some foam, make an upholstered platform you can strap to the leg rest. Be sure you cut out a divot to accommodate your heel…”

“That’s pretty clever,” says the doc, “Mind if I take a picture?” She does, and moves on to the next patient.

Room 15 looks at my homemade cushion. “I can’t make that, I’m stuck in this place and I can’t go home.”

She starts to cry, big tears tracking down her cheeks. “I hate this place. My own children treat me like I’m helpless, tell me I can’t live alone. I medicated them all their lives, and now they say I’m too old to know when to take a pill!”

“And THIS place,” she said, anger growing, gesturing to her head, “They took me down to the dining room this morning looking like THIS. No makeup, my hair isn’t even combed.”

“Can’t you comb it yourself?” I asked reasonably, “You have beautiful hair.” (She does, that beautiful warm grey that natural blondes get when they age, in a full, thick bob.)

“I don’t have a comb!”

“Wait!” I raced into my room, grabbed my wide-toothed comb, the purple one with the fat handle, and pushed it into her hand. “No excuses now. Comb your hair!”

She stared. “Can I buy this comb from you? How much do you want?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I have dozens of combs. Keep it. I’m Cynthia, BTW…”

“Marjorie,” she said, and tentatively put out a hand. And suddenly I’m slammed, nearly overwhelmed, with revelation: I KNOW this story. I WAS this story.

“The way you fix this and feel better,” I begin slowly, clasping her hand in mine, “Is to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.”

Six months ago, I was Room 15.  Terrified, angry that I’d gone from independent to helpless in a single moment.

I called it Meltdown, and a physical therapist brought me back by shifting my perspective to problem-solving.

It was time to pay it forward.

“Marjorie,” I said, “You can comb your own hair. You can CONTROL the way you look. Do you have your makeup with you?”

“Some,” she admitted, and stopped, “Yes, I don’t need help to put on makeup.”

You could see, literally see, the light dawn in her eyes.

“That’s something you CAN control. I learned to be independent by finding those things, and taking charge of them,” I said.

“Well, even if I comb my hair, it’s too long, it needs to be washed.” At The Fortress, showers are a weekly event; many of the residents are too fragile for more. “I just feel dirty all the time.”

“OK, that’s a good one. Do you know how to use a washcloth? They’ll give you washcloths and towels. Can you get to the sink? I’m in a wheelchair too, and I can get to the sink. That way you don’t have to beg for a shower.”

“Yes,” she said, thinking, “I can wash myself in between showers. I might need help with the leg. My hair, though…it’s too long to wash that way.”

“So cut it short,” I said, “I used to wear mine just as long as yours, but the last time I was here I got the hairdresser to cut it short, only an inch long. I can wash it with a washcloth now, anytime I want. Even when it’s dirty, it’s out of my face.”

“Short,” she nodded, “I like your hair, it’s attractive. Short. Yes.”

“Hair grows,” I went on, hoping I wasn’t getting preachy, “The big thing is knowing what’s important: Getting better. Letting go of the stuff that isn’t about your first priority: Healing.”

She nodded. “My son, he’s good with his hands. His wife can sew, she makes clothes for my four beautiful granddaughters,” she said, enthusiasm growing. “They could make me a leg rest like yours. They could make me a pouch for this wheelchair so I can carry my book…”

“Right. Exactly!” I beamed, “Those things you CAN do, you don’t have to beg and wait for someone. You can wheel up and down the halls like me. Do exercises in your room. Learn a new language. Lots of things.”

(OK, so the actual conversation was much longer, maybe an hour, and involved tears on both sides… but it’s not like I’m writing War and Peace here…)

She smiled. “You’re right, I’ve been silly. My son, he had the best job, lost it in the recession, but he didn’t sit there crying; he learned to drive a truck. And then he wanted to be with his family, so he gave that up to drive a schoolbus in Portland.”

“They love me so much, I know,” she said, “You know, I need to stop giving them such a hard time. Start planning.”

The nurse called; time for discharge paperwork. I said goodbye to Marjorie, who leaned forward for a hug and sat back, thinking hard.

My paperwork took an hour; the wheelchair transport a little longer. When I finally left The Fortress, I saw Marjorie down the hall, talking to Room 22.

“What you must do,” she was saying, “Is take charge. What can you manage on your own…”


*OK, don’t REALLY do this; you’ll probably get arrested for trespass or something.