Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Language That Transcends

Photo Credit: Ivan Prole  Zemum, Serbia
 During my clinical placement for college I worked on a hospital Palliative Care floor. I worked with individuals who were living with terminal illness and their families. One of the patient's assigned to me was a 44 year old woman.  She had a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis.  Visiting her was one of the highlights of my day.  She taught me a great deal, more than I could have learned from any book or guided exercise.

She was a tiny woman, ravaged by an unforgiving disease.  She was unable to swallow, barely able to talk above a whisper.  She looked so small, almost swallowed up by her hospital bed. Even though I could barely make out what she was saying most of the time her wisdom and depth of spirit transcended language.

As time progressed and her story nearing its final pages, she slept more and more of her days away.  I would retreat to her room so that she was not alone.  At first I did this to provide her with some comfort as she drifted in and out of sleep during our visits.  She didn't have any family or friends visit in the months I worked on the unit but she would share stories about the people who she held dear in her thoughts.

Her words came in breathy effort filled gasps.  Over time I learned about her brother, nephew and others.  As the memories played out in her mind, flickers of her spirit and beauty shone in her expressions.  So much of the time she writhed with pain from muscle spasms in her stiff contracted legs that it was uplifting to see her expressions as she shared her story with me.  She worked through waves of pain and grief in distant expressions or in quiet sobs with admiral strength.

In the end, I would arrive with music and books but she was not able to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time.  I would sit at her bedside relieved to take a load off and let my own thoughts take me away.  One day when I thought she was sleeping she turned her head and told me that she had noticed that I wasn't as focused or engaged with her.  It was quite a reality check.  I realized how much a part of this world she still was.  Never again would I forget myself when I was with a client. 

Shortly after that day I dreamed one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had.  In my dream, I saw this woman.  She was off in the distance but I knew it was her.  She was wearing a beautiful flowing dress not a thread bare hospital issued gown.  She was running through a field of yellow flowers freely, without effort.  I was flooded with positive feelings as I watched her. 

When I woke up I stayed really still.  I could still see the image in my mind was still experiencing a flood of happiness.  I laid in my bed noting that the dream seemed more real than the feeling of my bed under my body.  I woke up for another day of work and on my arrival learned she had passed away.  As I was told I just nodded, but in my mind I thought, I know, she came to see me. 

It was only afterwards upon reading her death notice in the paper that I realized how many things I'd misunderstood.  Her voice was so weak, her ability to communicate so diminished.  Even though I misunderstood much of what she tried to tell me, I learned to speak a language that was so much more important. A language about seeing beyond what is before you, and connecting with the spirit of humanity that connects us all.


Jenn said...

Kim, your level of understanding people in all positions of life will never cease to amaze me! Your blog is an inspiration to me as I continue my journey as a palliative care worker.

Bambi said...

What a wonderful telling, Kim! IK am proud to call you my friend!

Anonymous said...

Well said. Very well said.

Tricia Pell said...

Kim, that was so beautiful and touching. Thank you for sharing her story and the dream of her freedom from the life that bound her. To think of her as pain free and bounding with joy is positively beautiful!

Kristi Kastler said...

I hope this one works! Love LOVE your blog!

sandy said...

Nice blog Kim!

Elaine said...

Kim, I appreciated your insight and thank you for sharing your experience.

Ian said...

Kim - thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with such beautiful writing. Gentle, honest, emotional and engaging. Thanks!

SCT said...

Beautifully written Kim.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou