The Equalizer

Posted by Dr. El - January 10, 2009 - Anecdotes - 2 Comments

Louise was a petite 79-year old woman who spent her days watching TV and working her needlepoint, anchoring the tapestry frame against her chest with one arm while she slowly pushed the needle through with her good hand. I first met her casually because she was the roommate of another resident I was seeing. I’d say hello and excuse myself as I pulled the curtain for “privacy” while I spoke to her roommate, Cynthia, who was dying of cancer. I wasn’t too sure how much Louise could understand, since her speech was garbled and unintelligible, but we always acknowledged each other when I arrived for my weekly sessions with her roommate. When Cynthia died, I made a point of stopping by to offer my condolences. To my surprise, Louise burst into tears and held up her good hand for me to wait, while she labored over a note she wrote on the back of the recreation calendar. She pushed the paper toward me. I read it out loud. I was in the room when she died. I was in the room when my father died. She began to wail, and I murmured reassurances and stayed with her until she became calm.

Louise wasn’t referred to me for treatment, however, until she threw a cup of water at her aide several weeks later. (I’m not allowed to refer patients to myself.)
Louise told me about her life via handwritten notes and the occasional using of the talking computer that verbalized what she painstakingly typed out.
I’ve been a cripple ever since I got polio as a girl. I never had a job.
“Yet you write so well,” I commented, “and your spelling is perfect.”
My mother home-schooled me. My parents insisted on an education.
She told me about her twin sisters, Lina and Lana, now 81 years old.
They doted on me, just like my parents did. She laughed, and took back the scrap of paper to add, They still do.
Once Lana came to the nursing home for rehab and I pushed Louise in her wheelchair to visit with her. The kissing and hugging that ensued caused me to turn away with embarrassment. I felt like I was interrupting a pair of lovers. When I said this to Louise, she giggled.
I took Louise out to sit on the patio, and I introduced her to some of the other residents, but still she sat in her room day after day.
I can’t talk to them. No one understands what I’m saying.
“Why don’t you try using your computer?” I suggested. I set her up in the hallway and explained to some of her neighbors how the computer worked. She tried this a couple of times, but soon retreated to her television and needlepoint.
“You know, Louise,” I finally said, “you might have been disabled and different from others all your life, but now you’re just like everyone else here. Almost everyone is in a wheelchair. When I first met you, I didn’t know you’d had polio. You looked like you could have had a stroke like Ms. Lopez or Mr. Wilson down the hall. It’s hard to understand them too, and they’re still out there, attending activities.”
She didn’t say much about this, but the next week I found her at a concert in the dining room with the other residents. Soon after, she became a regular at all the recreational activities and her childish rages with staff diminished. She stopped me in the hall one December day after we’d concluded treatment to ask me if I could come by to see her perform as Mary in the 3rd floor’s Nativity play. I managed to stop in the doorway for a while to watch the performance. She caught my eye and beamed a smile.