I have worked in a hospital for 20 years. 99% of my work has to do with outpatient administration. I am been in the background and very much away from the inpatient floors. Those few floors are where the procedures, recoveries and most critical health issues take place. Yet I nearly always forget I work in a hospital.
On some work calls I hear about the inpatient statistics and infection rates of COVID. Those patients seem distant and far away. They have little to do with me. Yet on other calls where letters are anonymously shared, patients and family members have the most human experiences on those floors. Experiences that are so positively impacting to their lives that they take the time to share.
While these letters cause me smile and temporarily feel proud for working in my organization, they do not personally touch me.
Yesterday my husband & I moved a wooden flower container that was Paula’s from our deck to our small garden area behind the fence to remove the dirt.
As soon as we dumped the dirt the entire container fell apart. Pieces of wood mixed with the dirt. I was surprised at the great condition those pieces were in. Being a self-proclaimed up cyclist artist, I immediately saw beautiful pieces in which to make art on. First order of business was to make something involving Paula.
Paula used to have beautiful wildflowers in that same box. I remember her telling me in 2020 how she went to go put some seeds from a packet into the container when the wind carried the seeds right out of the packet! She thought they flew away, but a few months later beautiful flowers appeared.
Now, like her life – some of the most raw, beautiful things such as the wildflowers are long gone, but the memories and magnificence of what was there remains.
Paula was the first neighbor I met when my husband and I bought our current house in 2016. It was a second home on the water in Branford. We had no intention of living at it for several years, so I was taken aback (in a good way!) when Paula and a host of other neighbors warmly welcomed us to the neighborhood.
Somehow every time we were here, I saw Paula. She was always around. Walking, talking to neighbors, out with her happy dog Stella. Paula was in her mid-sixties and lived alone. She was FULL of life. Always smiling, laughing, joking… Happy.
She often invited me over with my dog Koji to her fenced yard. Sometimes I had limited time at the house to complete work and declined her offers, other times I went there to spend time with her. In a short time, I learned about her life. She had a beautiful home that was lifted from the ground recently (flood risk) and again she was one of the happiest people I ran across regularly.
She often hosted Happy Hours. She held a welcome party for anyone who moved to our small community. She randomly met people on walks or in town and made connections with them and for them.
Somehow, I had her cell phone and she texted me often. She would often call to let me know about how nice my renters were, that an ambulance was on the street, that something happened in the neighborhood we might be interested in.
I felt a part of the neighborhood even though we didn’t live there – thanks to Paula.
Extra bananas, clothes she was cleaning out, a knickknack that reminded her of me… she was often coming by with items that I may want that she didn’t need.
She dressed beautifully. Her natural hair color of nearly white looked very chic on her stylish cut. She had keys to our house and often went in to check on things while we were away. She welcomed nearly all our renters to the area. I still have dozens of comments from renters about how wonderful the area, neighbors and particularly “that lady across the street” Paula was.
She was the only neighbor our children knew the name of. None of them ever lived here but when they visited they were sure to run into her.
I shared my blogs and stories with her. She often commented and referred to little things I wrote in daily interactions.
Based on an innocuous comment one hot summer day in July 2018, she was the very reason I realized how my PTSD was different from panic attacks. This kicked me into a 3-day frenzy of large flipcharts and sticky notes about the root cause as I explored a past that I was previously afraid to face.
During that time there was a storm and we lost power. I was alone in my current home here in Branford. While I never went over to her place, Paula invited me over daily to have some salads and enjoy the comforts of her generator. I was very much involved in my little self-exploration and in a strange but cathartic despair. I knew Paula was right there if I needed anything. And that was comforting.
She came to every party we hosted with a very elaborate store-bought dish to share. She WAS the life of the party. I do remember though in the early months of 2019 during a party she disappeared quite early. The next day I brought her coat that she left behind over. She would tell me she didn’t remember going home. She was drinking so I wrote it off.
In the late summer of 2019 when we permanently packed up our Cheshire home and made the move to Branford. Paula was very excited. Yet every so often she seemed confused. It was getting to be this way for a while. I can’t say when exactly. But she wasn’t the same.
She was never the same. In 2020 the decline had taken an obviously noticeable turn. She turned 70 that year and in the height of COVID her brother and sister-in-law hosted a very nice outdoor party. Paula had friends staying with her from all different times in her life. My husband & I heard stories from them about Paula that were not surprising – how friendly and vibrant she was, how amazing of a friend she had been, how she lit up a room. And how the person now on her 70th birthday was only a shadow of Paula.
Now it’s 2022. Her home is empty. She is a patient that some administrator counts the beans for. She is a number. Paula is someone that providers confer about how to handle during a huddle. Someone that the family members will likely write a nice letter for if her care was good. A random note that someone like myself who does background work to make such a place run will hear about, smile for a moment and carry on.
But what about that patient’s life? Their loved ones? The people they touched? The remnants of their possessions that used to hold such life and love? – Like the planter that used to adorn her lawn which is now in pieces in my yard? Where and how does that all count?
Where do those stories and that love go?
I was a very small part of her life for a very short period of time. Thinking about Paula and these pieces of her planter (that I will absolutely turn into something beautiful) will hopefully help me to stop and think about each patient while I run thousands of beans for them in various “ways til’ Tuesday” so the administration can make data informed decisions.
These lives count. All lives matter. We aren’t just numbers. We are amazing human experiences that make differences for the next lives that come along. The history of each one of us may not be recorded – but we make history with every last interaction of our lives. Even by accident. Like the wildflowers that appeared when Paula thought they flew away. She planted something beautiful and didn’t even know it.
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