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Second Place - "Gaining Insight"

1999 Anne Horton Writing Award
First Place
"Gaining Insight"
Danielle Wolf

I believe that it is very helpful to always look at a situation from all possible perspectives. The problem is we don't always know what all of the perspectives are. Gaining insight to different perspectives comes to us through life-experience and open-mindedness. My life-experience of working at a nursing home has helped me gain insight into many aspects of life. Working at a nursing home has really forced me to look at death from a different perspective.

Before working in a nursing home I cannot say that I ever really had to deal with the death of another person. The only death I had experienced prior to that time was the death of a pet. I had a gerbil, named Mighty, given to me when I was seven years old. I had Mighty for four years. On a Saturday morning, when I was eleven, I woke up and was putting food into Mighty's cage when I discovered that he was missing. I looked up at the top of the cage and realized that Mighty had chewed his way through the plastic and escaped. I can still recall how frightened I was. Not only was I scared that my mother would be upset about a rodent running loose in her house, I was also afraid that I would never find Mighty. I searched my room from top to bottom, but couldn't find Mighty anywhere. I was leaving my bedroom to search the rest of the house when I saw Mighty lying on his back in the hallway outside of my bedroom door. I reached down to pick Mighty up and realized that he was not moving. I carried Mighty into my mother's bedroom to see if she knew what was wrong with him. My mother took one look at Mighty and told me that he was dead. My mother and I buried Mighty in the back yard. I was so upset that I cried for days. From that day on I feared death.

After having worked in a nursing home for a number of years I have witnessed more death than I can recall. Most of these deaths are long and drawn out. At first the resident is scared of dying, usually because they fear the pain it will cause their family, but eventually they accept the fact that they are going to die. When the resident reaches this point of acceptance a form of peace settles all around them. I took care of a woman, I will call Mildred, who was dying of lung cancer. Mildred suffered for six long months. I was at work the day that Mildred's breathing began to shallow. I can remember sitting in Mildred's room and holding her hand. Mildred seemed to be in a lot less pain than normal and she had a smile on her face for the first time in months. Mildred looked at me and told me how happy she was that the fight for her life was coming to an end. It amazed me that she knew she was going to die and yet she was not frightened at all. I can still recall the calmness in the air of Mildred's room that day. I expected death to be a very harsh experience, but it seemed so peaceful and serene. Mildred showed me that I have nothing to fear where death is concerned.

After Mildred's death and many more like it, I realize how selfish family members can be. I used to think that if anything ever happened to my mother that I would try to save her at all costs. I wanted my mother in my life regardless of what physical or mental condition she was in. I now realize that that is a purely selfish reason to keep someone alive. I took care of a resident, who I will call Robert. Robert was bed-ridden, and not really in a normal state of mind. Robert reached a point where he could not swallow his food or liquids without choking, and was going to die unless a feeding tube was inserted into his stomach. Robert's family decided to have the feeding tube put in so that he would live. Robert continued to live for four long years, in a vegetable state. Robert never spoke, never got out of bed, and was being fed through a tube in his stomach. Robert's life consisted of the nursing assistants coming in to turn him in bed every two hours, because he could not turn himself. Robert finally did pass away last year, but in my opinion "Robert" was gone long before his body gave out. I have watched many people in this physical state and now know that I would never want to live like that and feel that no one else should have to either. I could never put my mother through a miserable situation such as what Robert went through, just to have her in my life.

I remember going to see my great-grandmother in the nursing home she lived at and how she would always tell us that she wanted to die. I could never understand how someone could actually want to die. Since I started working in a nursing home, I have learned that my great-grandmother was not the only person who has felt this way. I have residents tell me on a daily basis that they want to die. When I first started this line of work, I felt very uncomfortable hearing residents tell me they wanted to die and I was never sure how I should respond to them. My response was always to tell these residents that they didn't want to die and how much they had to live for. I was trying to cheer these residents up, because I just thought that they were depressed and looking for a little attention. These residents would look at me and say nothing, but I could see in their eyes that they thought of me as being young and naive. After years of seeing how these residents live and what they ve and what they go thros run on a strict schedule and these residents are forced to conform to the nursing home's schedule. The sadest of all is that a majority of the residents families never come to see them except on holidays. After I started looking at these things from the residents' perspective I realized why some of them no longer wanted to live. I no longer tell these residents that they don't want to die, because they genuinely do. Now when these residents tell me that they want to die, I simply reply, "I know."

Gaining insight through my life-experience has helped me learn how to treat the people I take care of at the nursing home, their families, and hopefully my own family when it happens.