Do You Know?


I have just attended an outrageously unsafe event at the Iroquois Nursing Home.

A retiree was offering a piano performance in the Activities room on the first floor. Twenty-five to thirty people in wheelchairs were packed into the room. There were no aisles front-to-back or side-to-side. No one could move through the crowd to get to any individual in need—and people in wheelchairs need a lot of individual care. The wheelchairs were jammed in so closely that, at maximum, there was eight inches separation and, at minimum, wheels were locked together.

There was only one competent adult in attendance.

Woman A dropped her nasal cannula on the floor. Nobody noticed that she no longer was getting oxygen. Woman B kept grabbing the wheelchair of Woman C and pulling it further and further to the side; perhaps Woman B, being so close to Woman C, thought she was pulling on her own wheelchair. Nobody noticed.

Woman D, in a hammock sort of wheelchair in the second row, became agitated, repeatedly trying to pull herself up or twist around. After much flailing, somebody noticed and went to her. Extracting her from the middle of the melee involved removing two other people and hitting an additional two people. When the woman in front of me got with the rhythm, she kept rolling backward and hitting my foot.

Present in the room was Joyce, the only Activities staff person who appeared to be both physically and mentally competent. She stood in the back of the room. About a third of the residents were in high-backed wheelchairs that blocked vision. Joyce should have been standing in the front of the room where she could continually scan faces and hands for signs of agitation or expressions of need.

Also present in the room were (a) an Activities man who appears to have Down syndrome. He is entirely competent to push wheelchairs and transport people but he has no critical ability to notice when problems are developing or figure out what to do about them. (b) An elderly volunteer who looked like she’s still spending a lot of time on the tennis court, however, she was not in the room most of the time. (c) A broad-beamed old woman who sat and enjoyed the show. She did not scan the residents or make eye contact. When I tried to signal her, she was unresponsive. I concluded that she was a resident, not a volunteer.

So picture this: thirty people who all lack physical and mental competence, some to an extreme degree, seated in wheelchairs jammed together into a solid mass with only one competent adult present. Now, ask yourself, if one person starts choking or grabbing their chest in pain or—God help us—there’s a fire, exactly what do you think is going to happen?

Twenty-seven people will die of smoke inhalation.

After the music stopped, the broad-beamed woman came near and informed me that she was a volunteer. I asked to speak to the Activities director. Broad-beam said that she is on vacation for the week. I asked who is in charge in her absence. Broad-beam smiled winsomely, looked around blankly, and said, “I guess we all are.”

Or, more correctly, nobody is.

Do you know what it means to be human, and afraid? Do you know what it feels like to need something and not be able to get it? Do you know what it’s like to be unable to turn head to look for help?

And they won’t let me have a power wheelchair to escape this.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
This entry was posted in American medical industry, disability, Medical care, Nursing home, Onondaga County, Powerlessness and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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