“Look at me momma,” the child exclaimed, his mouth sprawling into a toothy grin. “I’m swimming.” For many patients at the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Clinic the simple act of ambulating from their wheelchairs on solid ground is an insurmountable feat, let alone swimming. Thus, any progress made, however remote, can bring about the most indelible feelings of accomplishment.
This week was one riddled with progress. A patient who had previously struggled performing some of the most mundane of tasks was now leading her own exercises, pushing instructor-set benchmarks and exceeding the expectations of us all. While finishing one lap had been laudable last week, the threshold for praise was upended as the patient began strapping on weights and frolicking around the pool like a young Dara Torres.
We were also introduced to a new patient who was afflicted with an illness significantly more debilitating than any others I have ever worked with. Though I cannot personally speak to the taxing effects epilepsy can have on a person’s mental and physical acuity, I must say I admire all who deal with this on a day-to-day basis. Progress would almost immediately be impeded by a onslaught of spontaneous fits and convulsions. This patient required constant support — both physically and mentally — throughout the session but by the end had managed to reach all of his goals for the day.
While I have been fortunate enough to work with children stricken with a wide range of disorders and diseases, of recent, we have experienced a noticeable decline in children enrolling in the Aquatics program: both in- and out-patients. It is unknown whether this stands as a barometer for the precarious state of healthcare in America or less people simply need our assistance. Nevertheless, I hope to continue working with patients as they are not the only ones benefiting from the experience: the reward is mutual.
As a pre-med student, I seize every possible opportunity to be in a medical setting. Through ED scribing, EPIC implementing and various other shadowing internships, I have been fortunate enough to fulfill this aspiration many times over. Per these experiences, I have learned much, seen much more, and I once ended up as the patient needing five stitches after a vasovagal of my own. But something was missing. I wanted to step out from the shadow, emerge from the background, and forsake my role as an observer—all of which was made possible through the Aquatics unit at the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center.
I do not mean to imply that I was unhappy in any of those previous roles; I was simply unsatisfied. I am completely cognizant of the fact that my lack of formalized medical training prevents me from interacting beyond an observer capacity, but I yearned to provide some facet of patient care—outside of prescribing medications or performing surgical procedures.
The water was warm, almost too warm. “To get the blood flowing,” my supervisor promptly reminded me after witnessing my apprehension to dive in. With twelve years of swimming experience, I felt fairly confident I could coach a patient through a thirty-minute session of basic breaststroke and free-style with a few interludes of muscle building exercises. I was unaware, however, of the impact that this would have on someone who struggles daily with a debilitating disability.
Throughout the session, the patient beamed with joy and laughter after each lap —always asking, “Can I do it again?” I often replied, “as long as you want,” or “as long as you stop beating me.” His motivation to improve was inspiring. Nevertheless, long turned into short and soon enough we were out of the pool drying off. His fervor, however, could not be quenched. The patient, still glowing, grabbed his mother and demanded to know when he could “do it again.” “We’ll see sweetie,” she said, appeasing her child, “we’ll see.”
Though Olympic gold may not be in his near future, it was almost as if, for that brief thirty-minute period, he felt a sense of invincibility: unchallenged by his diagnosis, undaunted by the hurdles that lay ahead.
My hands trembled a bit in the elevator as I held a basket of paper pumpkins, the faces on the construction paper were scrawled heavily by inexperienced sharpie users – young children at a local church. Each pumpkin had a different face and I had been instructed to deliver them to the entire hospital, an intimidating feat, which I admit I left without fully completing. Looking back, those pumpkins were really cute! At the time, I was too nervous about the task at hand. The elevator binged, alerting me that my ascension skyward had ended. I stepped out, adjusted my ill-fitting smock and walked to the entrance of the unit.
I thought of that Liberty Mutual commercial where one person’s good deed aids the entire community. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, please check it out at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frpp6DjCaJU&feature=related )
With a bit more pep in my step, I walked into the first room.
A woman with a newborn on her chest told me loudly to come in; she had to talk loudly to be heard over the woman talking on the telephone and the court show on television. I carefully chose the prettiest of the scary construction paper pumpkins and walked to her bedside. I explained that young volunteers wanted to spread the spirit of the holiday by giving everyone mini pumpkins. She smiled broadly and took the pumpkin, showing it off to everyone in the room. The baby squirmed and I snuck a peek at his little face. She gushed about how sweet the gesture was and I left the room down 1 pumpkin, with 40 more ugly faces longing to be given away.
The rest of the delivery went smoothly; each pumpkin got its proper oohs and aahs! The bottom of the basket still couldn’t be seen among the pile of pumpkins and I contemplated skipping my Spanish test in order to finish my assignment. I felt like the Santa Clause of Halloween. Sometimes I forget how important it is to display small acts of kindness!