On this particular morning, I had a charming old gentleman in my care group. His sad diagnosis of cancer couldn’t hide the fact that he was large on personality even as his body shrank away from disease. He always had a smile and a chipper greeting. It was hard not to linger a little longer at his bedside to chat. Among his assortment of meds was a seriously strong-smelling liquid. I needed to resort to mouth breathing just to pour it, especially as I have a fairly sensitive sniffer anyhow. I handed him the little plastic cup with its carefully measured milliliters of fluid. Imagine my surprise at his response. Not only did he groan with disgust at the site of it, he promptly complained “Awww. Not that wicked shit again!” It was so startling that I couldn’t stop a snort of laughter from escaping. I immediately apologized and explained that I was not laughing at his misery, rather at his choice of language. His eyes twinkled and a mischievous grin spread across his face. He crowed, “betcha didn’t expect that from an old fella like me!” With that we both broke into outright laughter, which after all is the best medicine. I no longer remember his name, but I’ve never forgotten him and his one-liner.
Similarly, I also remember another elderly man, a farmer. (Yes, an honest-to-true farmer in New Jersey. It is nicknamed the Garden State after all.) I believe he was in his early nineties and a little on the frail side to begin with. A few days in the hospital won’t do much to improve anyone’s ability to get around regardless of their age. He was staunchly independent, in the way you might expect of an old-school agricultural type. Praying he wouldn’t fall, I watched him half shuffle and half hobble around his side of the two-bed room with a sense of dread. He badly wanted to go home, but a fall or serious stumble could land him in a nursing home, if Physical Therapy felt that he’d be too risky to send home. I was on tenterhooks, but couldn’t truly say that he was unable to manage. He was slow but steady enough in getting around.
Later that morning, the orders for discharge finally came through. The old fellow was delighted. I was probably less so, as discharge papers were just one more thing to add to a growing to-do list on a busy morning. But his family wouldn’t arrive until after lunch, so I had a little breathing room. Once the lunch trays were cleared away, he began the business of gathering himself and his belongings to go home. Still concerned for his safety, I offered to ask one of the nursing assistants to help him getting dressed. I would happily have done it myself, except that my day had devolved into the kind of day when I had all I could do to play catch up on “nurse only” tasks. But helping someone dress was the sort of thing I could–fortunately or not–delegate. He refused the help, insisting that not only could he do it himself, but that he’d have to at home. I couldn’t fault his logic there. I left him to it.
He took forever to complete the task. I checked anxiously on him a number of times, quietly listening to him shuffle around in the bathroom. Because I knew he was attempting to prove his abilities to himself, his family, and to me, I avoided knocking to ask how he was doing more than once. I didn’t want to hover when I knew he was trying so hard. At long last he was out of the bathroom and seated in the bedside chair ready for his discharge instructions. His son had perched on the corner of the bed.
There was just one problem. When he exited the bathroom and eased slowly into the chair, the X-Y-Z moment was too obvious to be ignored. Here was a conundrum. How on earth was I going to tell him he’d forgotten to zip when he was clearly pleased with his success in dressing? I still had to review his discharge instructions and clarify any questions he or his son had. This bought me a little time to think.
I finally decided that in good conscience there was no way I could let him head off in public like that. Now, how to phrase the delicate matter so as not to embarrass him. I thought some more as I wrapped up my patient discharge shtick. Then forged ahead.
“So…ummm. Not to embarrass you, sir. But you…uh…I have to let you know that you did a great job getting squared away to go home, except for one thing.”
I paused still hedging on how best to put it.
“Come on, honey.” he prompted. “Just spit it out.”
“Well, you forgot your zipper.”
He glanced down, began to laugh, and after fumbling a moment or so with the tiny tab of the slider, zipped up. With that he looked up at me and let fly.
“It’s OK, honey. What don’t get up, don’t get out!” He virtually cackled with glee as I flushed as red as a tomato. His laughter was infectious, and after my own momentary mortification I couldn’t help but join in. Even his son couldn’t escape without a barely concealed smile.
Clearly he made an impact. I still remember him many years later. And I’m still laughing when I do.