What I learned from Mrs. O. – Healing Conversations

Tony (Silbert) and Mary (Vargas) had the opportunity to present a session at the Aging in America Conference in March 2014 in San Diego.  In that session, one of the participants shared a lovely story about Mrs. O, a patient she got to know through her work as a social worker at a nursing home.  The participant was Mei Kameda, and this is her story with Mrs. O.  We thank her for sharing it!

I started working at the nursing home when I was 22. I never ever had thought that I would be working at a nursing home in social services, because that was not what I studied in college. Going from studying to become a health educator to social services made me nervous, but, in the end, I was in love with the job.

When we think of “nursing homes,” it’s very likely that the residents will spend the rest of their lives in the facility. And in addition, when you work in a nursing home setting, you will likely see the people you grow to know pass away; however, I learned that the time I spent with residents I met over the course of year(s) were some of the most precious moments of my life so far.

Throughout my journey working in social services, I found the residents inspirational. When many think of skilled nursing facilities, often times it has a negative stigma; however, while working at a skilled nursing facility, I was reminded that it doesn’t have to be negative. Though I did see that many of my residents had multiple health conditions, including chronic conditions, psychological conditions, and memory impairment, getting to know them personally inspired me every single day to want to go back to work the next day.

I had one resident, let’s call her Ms. O., she shared something valuable and unforgettable to me. Ms. O was diagnosed with cancer and decided to stop her treatment due to her age. She told me that she did not want to go through rigorous and intense treatment, and just wanted to be “comfortable” until the day she takes her last breath. Soon enough, she was admitted to hospice where a team of hospice staff and our facility staff continuously supported her the way she wished to be.

What was interesting about Ms. O is that she had the same cancer as my father and her previous medications and treatments were almost identical to my father’s, so I knew that there was not a cure (my father passed in early 2012). There were certainly times where it was tough listening to her talk about her conditions because it was very relatable to my personal life. But what was very encouraging about Ms. O was that despite her health conditions, she was one of the most positive individuals I have ever met. I would walk into her room and she always greeted me with a smile. Sometimes I find her eating chocolate – her favorite. I would get a chair and place it right next to her bed; that was when I noticed she had a positive mantra that was written for her to read every day or whenever she needed a reminder. Though I do not remember exactly what her mantra said, it went along something like, “I am healthy and I am happy” – I asked her, “Why this?” And she simply said, “When I read this, it gives me energy and hope to keep me going every day. It makes me appreciate every single day that is granted to me”.

Let me remind you again – this is a woman who is terminally ill, going through hospice care, has an oxygen tank next to her, and is well aware that she does not have much time left. Death is just around the corner; yet, she is able to stay positive. She is human, and has ups and downs, but my strongest memory of her is her constant positivity and ability to accept her illness. She said things like, “Well, I think I’m still alive…I’m still breathing!” when I asked her how she is doing.

From that day on, we decided to tell each other one gratitude a day so that we can practice being appreciative of our lives. Ms. O kept telling me how appreciative she was of seeing me every day, but to be completely truthful, she was giving me her precious time and I cherished every single second of it. She taught me that death is something that none of us can run away from, but acceptance and positive thinking makes a big difference in increasing the quality of life of an individual. It also warms the heart of others who love and care for her.

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