Two summers ago, I decided to volunteer at the Veteran’s Administration in Washington, DC. I was placed in the CLC, or Community Living Center, the long-term rehabilitation and nursing home within the VA. Although the VA sometimes gets poor marks on the ability to navigate their vast medical system, it appeared to me that the patients I saw at the CLC were receiving exceptional care. The doctors, nurses, assistants, hospice professionals and other care coordinators worked as a team to strive for the best health outcome for the residents. They even let me sit in on rounds to learn more about each patient’s condition, so as part of the care team, I took it as my special task to be a bright spot in a patient’s day. What I gained was much more.
One of the main jobs of a volunteer is to carry out “Operation Hydration”, which entails making sure residents have pitchers of fresh water to drink throughout the day. (Come to find out, fluids can be one of the most overlooked aspects of care in long-term care facilities.) In delivering water to the residents, I went into each person’s room, chatted with them a bit, and left them a pitcher or two of water. Some had specific requests: No ice; only warm water; just ice, no water; always bring extra straws; take all the other pitchers away; or leave them all there and stack them up. I found myself looking at each patient and trying to figure out why they were there—what medical conditions did they have, were they ever going to leave the VA, were they getting good care, did they have psychiatric issues, the list in my mind went on and on.
One day as I walked down the hall to refill my cart with new pitchers of water, I saw a row of photos on the wall—each pictured someone who was a current or former patient at the CLC. I saw men and women in uniform, standing at attention, getting married, proudly holding babies, earning promotions, laughing with their battalion mates, posing near the ocean, receiving commendations, sitting atop a military Jeep, marching in formation, scrambling up an obstacle course, writing at an old typewriter…such real vignettes of lives captured in hues of sepia, black and white, and color.
Somehow the people to whom I had been delivering water were now people whose lives had been intertwined with so many others. They had hopes, dreams, families, friends, jobs, goals, bucket lists and favorite restaurants. They traveled the world, asked the cute girl to the dance, played on a sports team, stayed out after curfew, won the spelling bee, nailed the job interview and had the best dog growing up. As I continued my “water rounds”, I began to look at each patient in a different way. They were not just their medical charts or current circumstances, but whole people with a wealth of experiences.
I think we tend to forget that all people have connections beyond their current situation, and often, we treat the person in front of us as someone who has no ties, untethered to anything or anyone else. Do we ever take an extra minute to really “see” the person? My view changed during my summer at the VA as I saw more than the person who was receiving healthcare, medications, therapy, and yes, even an amazing pitcher of fresh water. So if you are working with or visiting a patient in the hospital, my challenge to you is to take an extra 30 seconds and picture them as what they may have been once—the class president, the kid delivering morning newspapers on a bike, the girl splashing in a swimming pool, the host of the neighborhood barbecue, the young adult volunteering at a soup kitchen, the woman attending church with her grandchildren—and see how your mind shifts to the person they were, and still are.