Helping hands

Breakfast was always bustling with nurses and techs passing out schedules, meds and menus. By comparison, lunch was rather quiet. We still had to eat in the community Breakfast Room, but the time you ate at depended on your therapy schedule for the day and you generally sat with whoever else happened to be eating at that time. Sometimes, it might be just one or two others, sometimes there were as many as ten of us.

By June 10th, Billie and Lilian were both gone. The mysterious Lily was also gone. We had never gotten our moment to bond, our moment to trade war stories and talk about the challenges of battling brain tumors as young mothers, but it is just as well. That encounter couldn’t possibly have gone as well in reality as I wanted it to anyway. Everyone comes out of a brain injury or stroke with different defecits. Mine were primarily physical. From what I could observe, Lily’s were different. She was far ahead of me in terms of strength and mobility, but she had her own defecits to face. She also had major battles ahead of her. While my tumor was benign, most brain tumors are not. I’m not sure where Lily is today, but I hope she is well.

Doug was a new face on the ward. He’d suffered a motorcycle crash and was recovering from a major head and neck injury. He came to Rehab with a neck brace and a helmet that he had to wear 24 hours a day. And I thought a head full of staples was bad! I’m pretty sure his joy at losing the helmet after a week was probably even greater than mine at getting rid of the staples.

One day during lunch, I was sitting with a fellow patient named Bonnie. Bonnie was a quiet grandmother who had suffered a stroke. Although friendly, she was quiet and anxious most of the time. Her husband joined us for many meals and spoke to Matt often. On this day, neither of our husbands were with us. Bonnie and I were eating and heard Doug complaining at the table next to ours.

Doug was sitting with Sheryl. Sheryl was battling pancreatic cancer in addition to trying to recover from her stroke. She was in Rehab on her “break” between massive radiation/chemo sessions. Watching Doug and Sheryl interact had already become a favorite pasttime of several patients like myself. Doug was a middle-aged white guy with, shall we say, a rather outdated vocabulary.  He appeared unable (perhaps as a result of his ignorance compounded by brain trauma) or unwilling (due to his own prejudice) to call Sheryl anything other than “that negro gal.” As in “where’s that negro gal, I haven’t seen her today?” Sheryl, for her part, was actually fairly tolerant of him, simply correcting him to call her by her name if he said it in her presence.

That day at lunch, Doug was struggling with opening a packet of sugar. Doug happened to have a broken arm in a cast rather than an arm disabled by stroke. “This damn sugar packet!” he cursed. He looked around for a nurse or PSA to help him. Again, at breakfast, you can’t get a moment of peace with all of the nurses around looking for bellies to inject, but lunch is different. There was no one around. No one. By now, I was good enough with the wheelchair that I could have wheeled it over to where Dough sat, but I also only had one good hand and opening a sugar packet is a two-handed job.

Sheryl was sitting across from him. “I’ve only got one good hand, too,” she sympathized. “Here,” she said, “hold it out as far as you can.” Doug extended the sugar packet with his good hand. Sheryl reached across the table with her good hand and they both grabbed the packet. “Careful now,” she instructed, “we don’t need sugar flying everywhere. We’ve got enough challenges as it is.” The packet ripped just enough. Sheryl let go. Everyone laughed and cheered and Doug got sugar for his coffee (if you can call it that, Doug did not have the Allanya connection).

I was actually released before Doug was, although he was only a few days behind me. I’m not sure what happened to him. I know he talked about his girlfriend moving in with him to help him out. I don’t know what happened to Sheryl either. Knowing what little I do about pancreatic cancer, she was facing an uphill battle. I’m not sure she is with us any longer. Wherever, she is, I thank her for giving me this funny anecdote that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.


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