I was doing “full service” when I started out in general practice, including delivering babies. Obstetrics was a not-too-challenging routine part of my work (except having to get up in the middle of the night), but I never dreamt what having a baby meant
until we had one ourselves. I was astounded at my attitude and behaviour at 3
AM when a delivery room nurse tried to stop me from going with my thirty-minute-old
daughter to a “transitional” nursery, which the rules said she had to spend 24 hours in because of her score on some numeric scale. They had to call the administrator on duty and ended up making an exception, because nobody was going to take my baby away from me! My attitude to delivering babies changed that night.
My parents both died years ago and neither of them was ever frail. But now my in-laws are both dependent: Nigel is in an extended care facility after a stroke, and Liz is forgetful and recovering from a complication in the hospital. I, who have done decades of medical care of the frail elderly with what I thought was sensitivity suddenly understand what it means to be responsible for partially helpless people, and to feel helpless myself.
Watching Nigel being admitted to the facility, I got more and more paranoid with the odor, the scatterbrained administration, the medication mistakes I thought I detected, the gaunt immobile inmates staring from their wheelchairs, and the rough technique of care aides transferring him to his bed at 1 PM in a dark institutional room. My wife Robin was in tears and so was I, giving Nigel the best reassuring hug around the shoulders I could
manage after he told me he was scared and wanted to go home.
Nobody seemed impressed at my credentials. Moments after she told us everything was going to be just fine, I passed the staff lunchroom and heard the chief care aide laughing and chatting over coffee. Our guilt, bewilderment, frustration, and whimpering were Monday afternoon business as usual. And I knew it had been just so for me hundreds of times over the years, and how I must have appeared to so many honest worried people.
“Ve grow too soon oldt und too late schmart” says a fake-German motto on a bumper sticker. And too late kind, and humble…