Some years ago, my husband’s Uncle Ray had a heart bypass operation. That “robust Ray” needed surgery at all came as quite a surprise to his wife, Belle, who swore that her husband of many years had the strength and energy of men half his age. After Ray’s official retirement from “a company job,” he’d joined Belle in her antiques business spending much of his time hauling his “finds” and then spending many late evenings restoring these great old pieces to their former glory. That was Ray: always seeing and cultivating the hidden potential in things.
So, when Ray’s operation didn’t go exactly as planned, and left him without speech or the use of his limbs, Belle’s life changed dramatically. After closing the shop each evening, Belle drove to the convalescent home to feed Ray and to sit with him as he stared at baseball on the TV, attempting to communicate with her.
One evening, long after baseball season had ended, Belle took a stroll down the hall as an aide was attending to the personal needs of Ray’s roommate. As she passed the doorway of each identical room, she noticed that the last name of each patient was posted at the entrance: Smith, Jenkins, Polansky, and so on. The anonymity of these stark surnames struck Belle as an injustice to the human behind the name. After all, one had to assume that like Ray, each Smith, Jenkins, and Polansky had an identity consisting of memories and experiences, joys, sorrows, relationships, and accomplishments—not to mention personal quirks and idiosyncrasies.
And so, Belle marched down to the Head Nurse’s office and made a bold statement. She said, “My Ray may be just another patient to you, a heart operation gone wrong, but my Ray IS A LEADER OF MEN AND AN ENTREPRENEUR.” She went on to tell the befuddled nurse about Ray’s background as a building supervisor responsible for the contributions of his team, and about Ray’s boundless energy for rescuing and transforming old furniture – at a profit no less. But she didn’t leave it at that. Belle went on to suggest that beside Ray’s surname they should add: A LEADER OF MEN AND AN ENTREPRENEUR. And that beside each Smith, Jenkins and Polansky, a befitting description should reside so that each patient could retain the dignity of their identity.
I don’t know that the Head Nurse ever acted on Belle’s bold suggestion. But I do know that Belle’s inspiration is with me every time I hear the stories of people in hospitals, nursing homes, care facilities and elsewhere who struggle to hold onto their identity – that timeless sense of self that defies age, status, and, let’s face it, everything else. Life requires each one of us to find a way to hold onto who we are, does it not? How much more so in a care facility…
I hope that you never experience a life-altering event like Uncle Ray’s. Because Ray lost the ability to speak, I will never know what shifts he experienced in his sense of self. What I do know is that every person is more than what we see, what we “imagine” about them, or what the circumstances of their life might suggest. And in that way alone, they are just like you and me.