ELVIS, ANGELS, TANKS & TEARS
Yesterday I walked away from my secure and well paying job as an Occupational Therapist and Therapy Coordinator to pursue a lifelong dream without any guaranteed means of income or safety net. This morning, as the reality washes over me, I’m a little fearful, a little sad, a little relieved, and a little hungover. The other coordinators from sister communities in the Jacksonville network accompanied me to some of my favorite brew-pubs last night for one last blowout and the catharsis was much needed and appreciated. Despite working in different communities and communicating primarily through email, we’re quite a close bunch. In fact, from the team I supervise, to the staff in my communities, to the patients living in my communities, to the fellow supervisors throughout my region, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to work with, which is why I teared up several times this past week despite how relieved I am to leave the stress behind.
The team I supervise is compromised of four therapists, all attractive females, who referred to themselves as ‘Eric’s Angels’ in a humorous and affectionate nod to 70’s campy TV. (Though I always emphasize they came up with the name–can’t be two careful as a single guy working around lovely ladies!) They have all been sweet and supportive at my departure, though sad to see me go, (at least seemingly!) and I promised to stay in touch with a desktop box just like Charlie did with his Angels. One of the benefits of having a close and conscientious therapy team is that we work well and are close to the staff in these two small communities (around forty rooms each) from maintenance and caregivers to administration and nursing. With a few exceptions–for there always are exceptions–these buildings are staffed with interesting, compassionate, fun, and dynamic people whom I thoroughly enjoyed working with. And then, of course, there were the residents–so many amazing and memorable people from the ‘Greatest Generation’ on that I couldn’t recall them all if I tried. There was the tank driver in Patton’s Third Army who, when I scolded him for making a pass at young attendant responded: “Hey, I’m almost ninety. What do I got to lose?”; the swing-era drummer who loved Gene Krupa and would sing every word to
the CD I procured from the library as he’d work through his dementia-generated aggression on the exercise bike; the lady who had an Elvis impersonator at her 100th birthday and declared, “I hope the next 100 are just as much fun!”; the school lunch lady that I helped using adapted equipment write her final Christmas cards by hand, as she always did, mere week before she passed; and the fellow-writer with dementia who’s confusion cleared to a point I’d never witnessed before or since as I read back the poetry she had once written as she exercised (one fo the few people I’ve ever seen ‘graduate’ back out of memory care). I could go on. There’s been hundreds, all with amazing stories. And most of them are gone.
PAPERWORK, PETA, DEMENTIA, & DAMN-FOOLS
So if you’re wondering why I’d leave such a wonderful job working with such wonderful people while managing such a wonderful team in buildings with such wonderful staff nestled in a region of such wonderful networks, that’s one of many reasons. Every July when I replace my calendar (remember, I came from the schools so was long ago locked into the Aug-July rather than Jan-Dec planners) I’d look back at the names I’d scribbled down on my daily schedule the previous July and always a good half had since passed away. In advanced assisted living and memory care, you’re working with people nearing the end, just a nudge away from long-term hospice. While I believe fervently in providing quality of care to dementia and end-stage patients (if I locked a dog in my backyard and neglected it, PETA would have me locked in chains yet I can’t count the times someone has questioned why I’d worked with a person with dementia?! That’s someone’s parent and grandparent so don’t tell me they don’t deserve quality of life till the last breath!) it takes it’s toll knowing most of your efforts are stalling the imminently inevitable. If this stress isn’t enough, Medicare changes are making healthcare ever more frustrating as they increase paperwork and technicality to ‘cut costs’ and assure ‘quality care’ while in reality only raising costs for healthcare companies and eroding quality of care as over-stretched therapists become distracted and overburdened by growing oversite, redundancy, documentation, and red tape. Then there’s the fact that, while as a school therapist I had summers off, I’ve never stepped away from work for two consecutive weeks in the last 5.5 years. Granted, my coworkers teased because I was always flexing my schedule and traveling, but it was always in small bursts. Eleven consecutive days in the Brazil is the longest mental break I had. Sometimes you just need to get away. But the grandaddy of all my frustrations was a corporate culture that pushed for conformity over autonomy regardless of whatever success the persons in the actual environment had and, worse, that said uniformity often didn’t fit the unique situation of varying environments thus detracting from rather than promoting success. Phew. Glad I got that off my chest!
But these are all mere excuses. I love caregiving and guiding a team but my first love has always been writing. I’m not leaving due to the drawback of therapy but rather due to the draw of creative linguistic expression.
WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN WHEN IT’S SO HARD TO SO GOODBYE TO DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN?
Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed and close tears as I pulled away from work for the last time. Several patients had already cried saying goodbye, so I was primed. The staff in each building had held farewell luncheons and let me know I’d be missed. ‘The Angels’ were taking me out Monday night. And my fellow coordinators were about to send me off with hugs and mugs and beers and cheers. You often don’t realize how connected you are until you leave (which is why attending one’s own funeral has always been a poignant and/or humorous literary ploy!) With all this emotion flying at me, last night’s distraction was much needed as I arrived at the bar more melancholy than I ever dreamed.
I graduated from college an English major and went to grad school with intentions of getting my Ph.D. and publishing early and often. But I hated teaching and couldn’t sell my first novel. Meanwhile, I loved working at a summer camp for persons with disabilities and knew I could make a living in healthcare. I couldn’t wrap my mind around how to survive as a writer, being unable to sell one book and lacking a leisurely year to write another. So I returned to grad school in Occupational Therapy with a twinge of guilt that I was abandoning my dream. Yesterday, as I made the first, final step to reclaiming that dream, I felt that same twinge of guilt again, this time that I was abandoning those I’d come to care for over the years, ‘care for’ being meant in both senses of the phrase.
So here I am. A little hungover. A little excited. And thankful to my coworkers for helping me work through my feelings with a manly buzz and laughter rather than dwelling on the swelling of my eyes as I bid adieu to another meaningful chapter in my life.