Out of control: Dr. El gets an empathy reboot


Over the years, I’ve spoken with hundreds and hundreds of people whose daily lives were interrupted by a health crisis that led them into long-term care.  They’ve told me how challenging it can be and we’ve discussed the changes that have occurred and how to adapt to them.  If they’re going back home, we talk about how to minimize the chances of another fall or how to make use of supports in the community.  I understand it’s a stressful time and have a blog post that specifically addresses the stress of nursing home admission.  I thought I “got” it.

Then last week I was called for jury duty, plucked out of my life in the middle of a hectic time.  I’ve done it twice before, including a month of grand jury service, so it wasn’t that I was opposed to serving — it just wasn’t a good time.  But since I’d already postponed once and I didn’t foresee a less hectic period in my life for, say, another 10 years, I showed up at the courthouse to await my fate.  I was anxious, though, because I have my job to do and blog posts to write and then there’s the New York City school bus strike — another unpredictable, uncontrollable event taking me out of my routine for hours at a time.

I sat in the holding room until late in the morning before I was called for a medical malpractice trial.  A group of us filed into the courtroom and the judge proudly announced that he runs the longest trials of anyone in the district and we could expect to be there for 2-3 weeks.  (What!????)  We broke for lunch and I rushed to run a job-related errand, making it back to the courthouse in the nick of time.  The judge allowed those who thought they couldn’t provide 2-3 weeks of jury duty service to make their case.  I waited on line for my chance to speak to him privately and watched him send potential jurors back to their seats, saying “That’s not an excuse” or “We can work with that.  Sit down.”  Nervously, I approached the bench with three reasons I couldn’t be out of my life for that length of time.  I began with the school bus strike and the judge interrupted me.  “Your first reason is good enough.”  He sent me back to the jury pool where I sat for an hour and half before being given notice that I’d served my time and wouldn’t be called for another four years.

The next day I spoke with a man who’d been in the nursing home since before the holidays and was wondering when he’d be going home.  He’d been referred for psychological services because he’d been irritable with the staff.  I explained the discharge process as I have so often in the past, but this time I felt his anxiety in a whole new way.  I’d only been called for jury duty and still I’d felt for a few days like my life was out of my control.  This man had fallen, been taken to the hospital, and then to the nursing home for rehab.  He’d missed Christmas, New Year’s, and his wife’s birthday, and was waiting on a host of other people to tell him when he could go back to his life.  I was humbled.  He was handling things so well.

2 thoughts on “Out of control: Dr. El gets an empathy reboot”

  1. Glad to hear you were excused quickly!
    It’s frustrating enough to be sick and stuck in a facility. It’s worse when your discharge is not entirely dependent upon your improvement but the efficiency of the “team.” It makes me feel awful if one has to stay an extra day because I don’t have the paperwork ready, or when people across disciplines disagree on things.

    • I’ve noticed, C, that some nursing homes are quite good at setting a realistic discharge date and others may have a 50/50 chance of a resident actually being discharged on the set date. In my role as the psychologist, I try to prepare the residents for the possibility that the discharge might take longer than expected. I consider it an “inoculation” against disappointment and frustration.


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