By embracing change in her own life, my client taught her students a lesson that went beyond reading and writing.
MY HOME HEALTH CARE nursing supervisor said, "Lois, we have a new referral who sounds challenging. She has multiple sclerosis, and she just finished treatment for deep vein thrombosis. She hasn't been out of bed for 5 months, and I hear that she's demanding and depressed. Can you see her tomorrow?"
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"Of course," I replied. Clients with both physical and psychological issues had always interested me, and Irma Higgins was no exception.
When I went to her home the next morning, her husband Jim greeted me at the door and led me in. Irma sat propped up in her hospital bed in one corner of the living room, which overflowed with colorful children's books.
Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she told me, "I didn't want you to come, but Dr. Trent insisted. He says that I can't stay in bed all the time. I wish I could still hide under the covers like a little girl!!"
I squeezed her hand. "I'm here to try to make things better. We'll work out a plan together." As I did my initial assessment, Irma told me she used to be an elementary-school teacher. She described herself as someone from the "old school," a taskmaster of sorts.
Often I consoled her while she cried about her illness and the burden she was to her husband, who spent hours every day taking care of her and the house. At other times, she yelled at him when things weren't perfect.
But she never had this sad and angry mind-set on Monday or Wednesday afternoons. On those days, she sat up in bed, dolled herself up, and put on her bifocals. Jim put chairs on each side of her bed and a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the bedside stand. These were her "school days," when she tutored four second graders.
When the kids came in, Irma hugged each one and asked, "What special thing happened to you today?" Then she gave each child crayons and paper and said, "Draw a picture and write about it." Next, they'd choose books to read together.
I can still see the children's fingers following the lines on the page as they read. "Sound it out now," she'd coach them. "Make the M sound. That's right." Eventually all four children would crowd around her bed, before ending their class with cookies and milk.
After the children left, she'd be exhausted. "Brush the cookie crumbs out of the bed," she demanded. "I don't know why I keep tutoring. It makes my muscles tense to have the kids crowd around my bed, and they leave such a mess behind. I'm always so tired afterward. I should just stop."
I took a chance and asked, "How about getting out of bed for your classes? The physical therapist can get us equipment to help you sit in your wheelchair. You can put the bedside table right in front of you. The kids will be so excited."
"No, I don't think so, Lois. It would be too hard."
"Just think about it," I replied. "See you next week."
When I arrived on Friday, I was surprised to find Irma smiling. "Maybe you're right about sitting up to tutor," she said. "Maybe I can teach the children something more important than reading."
"Yes," I said. "Maybe that's your special calling."
One day Irma was sitting in her wheelchair when I arrived. She said, "I can't believe how good it feels. I can sit for only 5 or 10 minutes now, but every day it'll get better."
The therapist and Irma worked diligently for 3 weeks to increase her endurance. Finally, she was ready for the kids.
When they walked through the door, they were astonished. "Wow, Mrs. Higgins, you're getting better!!" they clamored. "Why did you decide to sit in your wheelchair?"
She paused, waiting for them to quiet down. "We can study better this way," she said. "It's easier for us to write and follow the words with our fingers. Sometimes if we have a problem, we have to work harder and that makes what we do more special. I've worked hard to do my exercises every day, just like I want you to work hard on your reading every day."
"You're like us," said one boy. "We have reading exercises, and you have arm and leg exercises."
"Yes," Irma smiled. "You have it, in a nutshell."
I looked at the little group and thought, May I live my own life with as much courage in the face of adversity, Irma. I'll never forget you.