I feel Tom (not his real name) deserves a spot in my story because of what I learned during my experience taking care of him in October 2011. He was a very high maintenance, middle-aged quadriplegic patient. Since he was unable to press the regular call light button due to his paralysis, the nurses had to rig up a special call light for him to use: the high-pitched pin alarms that are used on high fall-risk patients to prevent them from getting up by themselves. The string had to be taut, but not too taut, so that he could move his arm half an inch and cause the alarm to go off. This would have been the perfect solution except for the fact that HE KEPT PULLING HIS ALARM.
Tom pulled his alarm for everything. “I want my heels ‘floating’ over the pillows,” he instruct the nursing staff. “Move my head and shoulders towards the door, will you, please? Fluff this pillow under my head. Pull the pillow closer to my shoulders. My neck is hurting. Be careful with my right arm. It hurts. Be careful! Make sure my right foot is straight up in the air. Pull my gown up over my shoulders. Pull my gown away from my neck. I need a drink of water. Pull me up further in bed.” And so on. I would not have minded answering his call light every time had I not also had four other patients to take care of, and had he not been so impatient.
I heard his alarm shrill down the hallway. Sighing, I turned away from my charting and walked into his room, turning off his alarm and asking him to repeat what he had said. “Have you called my sister yet?” he asked impatiently, his dark eyes staring up at mine imploringly.
“No, Tom,” I answered with equal impatience. “I haven’t had time yet, but I will call her as soon as I can.”
“Make sure you call her before eight,” he said, and I could sense the urgency in his voice. “They’re farmers and they go to bed early.”
I glanced at the clock. “I will call her in about fifteen minutes.”
“No, call her now,” he demanded.
I started to walk out of the room. “I will as soon as I can.”
I did not have time for this. I had meds to pass, patients to assess, and charting to do. And he wanted me to call his sister so that she could bring him a decent dinner tomorrow because he said the food was terrible at this hospital. In fact, everything was terrible. The bed was uncomfortable, the pillows were too flat, the nurses didn’t listen to their patients…
Tom pulled his alarm several more times, and each time one of us walked into his room to turn it off, we reminded him that it would be awhile but that we would get around to calling her. Why is he making such a big deal out of this? I thought in exasperation.
One night, rolling him to his side so that another nurse could clean him up, Tom ordered me to take of his glasses which were pressed against the pillow because he did not want them to break again. His glasses had broken twice since he had been a quadriplegic. I assured him that his glasses would not break and that if they did, the hospital would replace them for him.
“Take off my glasses!” he demanded again.
“Your glasses are not going to break…”
“Take them off, god dammit!” he said, raising his voice. “Don’t you nurses ever listen to your patients? TAKE THEM OFF! TAKE THEM OFF NOW!”
This was my fourth night taking care of Tom. I had put up with his rudeness, his impatience, and his incessant call light use for too long and I had finally had enough. I had been nice to him and done everything he asked, but no more! I wasn’t going to listen to him, but the other nurse said quietly, “Just do what he says.” She was just as tired of Tom as I was, but knew we needed to put aside our own frustrations in order to give the best patient care possible.
I took off his glasses and set them on the bedside table. Tom glared daggers at me.
“Don’t you nurses ever listen to your patients?” he growled at me, livid with anger.
Near the end of my time taking care of Tom, he and I got along quite well. As he got to know me better, and I got to know exactly how he wanted things done, he stopped being so rude to me. That last night, I accidentally referred to Tom as “pleasant” to some of my coworkers. They all gave me a strange look and one of them said, “I think what you mean is ‘tolerable.’”
It was during these last days that I also learned some valuable lessons about life. His situation gave me a perspective that I hadn’t had before. He was rude and demanding and angry. But there was a reason for that. When I asked him what had happened to paralyze him, he told me that in May of that year, he had been walking outside and fell. He hadn’t fallen off a ladder. He hadn’t tripped over a branch on the sidewalk. He had simply tripped over his own two feet, and the fall had paralyzed him. A freak accident had changed his life forever. This had only happened a few months ago and he hadn’t had much time yet to adjust.
It only took a few seconds to completely shatter his world. He was no longer able to do anything for himself anymore. He was completely dependent on everyone else for his comfort and well-being. I wondered if he would ever be able to adjust to that. Is that something anyone can adjust to? I doubted it. He would always be haunted by memories of what had been. He would always remember being able to walk beneath a bright blue sky, hold his children in his arms, and do all of the small things that the rest of us take for granted like itching an eyebrow or shifting his weight to a more comfortable position. Now he was helpless, his arms limp at his sides, lying flat on his back to stare at the ceiling all day. No longer able to bathe himself, relieve himself, or feed himself…
What must be running through his mind? He probably wished he could die. I certainly would. Preferring death over full-body paralysis. People would no longer look at him the same. Most people would no longer see a man, but a quadriplegic. They would not see a warrior or a father or a husband but would instead see weakness and feel sorry for him.
I realized that no matter how rude he was to me, or how vexed I felt continually attending to his needs, it ultimately did not matter. I could have the worst night of my life, and I would still be able to walk out of the hospital at the end of my shift. Tom, on the other hand, was stuck lying on his back staring at a white, indifferent ceiling, with only the shrill pin alarm and the beeping of the IV pump to shatter the silence.
So many of us are discontent with our lives. We are always comparing ourselves to other people. We always want what they have. But we need to look at our lives and be grateful for the things we do have. We have so much to be thankful for. We can compare ourselves to those who are “better off” than we are and become discontent, or we can compare ourselves to those who are less fortunate than we are and be thankful. The difference comes in how we look at the glass, and whether we choose to view it as half-empty or half-full.