He knows about teeth, but…

When my grandmother Agnes, whom I called Nana, was in her 90s, she developed a dental problem that required surgery. She found a dental surgeon near her home who accepted her insurance and arranged for my mom to drive her to the appointment. On the day of the appointment Mom helped Nana down the hall and out the front door of her assisted living complex, got her and her walker into Mom’s car, and took her to the doctor’s office. There they found that at this doctor’s office, teeth would be the least of Nana’s problems.

Mom tells me about it: “We went up the elevator and then into the office, and there were two wide steps down. When we turned the corner, there were two more steps down.” For Nana this was a huge obstacle. She had had both hips and both knees replaced and walked with difficulty, even with the help of her walker. Mom remembers those four steps vividly: “She was not about to change her plans and see another doctor. She was moving forward! I just kind of held her around the waist while she went down. It was scary. She could have fallen. We both could have fallen! If she was in a wheelchair, we wouldn’t have been able to get to the doctor” at all.

“I asked the receptionist about another way to get to the doctor’s office,” Mom tells me. “I was greeted with a blank look—‘Huh?’—and then a strong answer, ‘Oh, there is no other way!’”

Once inside the examination room, Nana faced a different obstacle. After the doctor examined her, Mom remembers, he “looked at me and started telling me all about her mouth.” Nana was perfectly capable of conversing with and understanding the doctor; more importantly, she was a human being entitled to respect. White in her wavy hair and arthritis in her knees and hips had affected neither of those facts one bit. “I tried to redirect him,” Mom says. “I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t say forcefully, ‘Talk to Agnes. She’s your patient.’”

But Mom didn’t say that, and the doctor kept talking to her rather than Nana. Nana didn’t ‘fuss’ either. The surgery went forward, and Nana had her dental problem fixed. The other issues were never addressed.

Mom sighs with shame and defeat. “I guess he was a good dental surgeon, and he was in [her area].”

I want to believe society is changing. Nana is gone now and will never see it. But I want to believe that when Mom is in her 90s, she will be able to go to a doctor that sees her as a whole person, not just a broken body part.


Icy Sidewalk

I saw the woman standing by herself, in the middle of the large cement-paved plaza. People rushed by in all directions, swerving around the woman but not giving her a second glance.

It was cold and raw. The cement underfoot was covered with a treacherous layer of ice and snow.

The woman stood still, white hair fluttering in the cold wind as she looked at the ground around her. Something about her caught my attention. I realized she was standing in a tiny patch of dry cement. She had no cane or other mobility aid, such as might help a person navigate an icy surface.

I went over and offered my arm. She took it gratefully, and together we got off the ice and safely over to where the city had salted the sidewalk. She thanked me.

Before we parted, she told me she had been standing there, not knowing what to do, stuck on that dry patch of sidewalk in the cold, for over twenty minutes.

She can hear you, you know

We stood in line in front of the desk at the hospital, my elderly client leaning heavily on my arm and on her cane. We waited patiently for her turn to check in and see her doctor. When the line moved forward, she walked with pain, labored but determined.

A man saw us and came over. He addressed me. “Would your mother like a wheelchair?”

It was a She can hear you, you know moment. The contrast between his obvious kind-hearted desire to help, and the amazing rudeness of not addressing my client herself, left me breathless. I had no idea how to react.

I am sorry to say, I snapped at him. “She’s not my mother, and she doesn’t need a wheelchair.”

Looking back, I wish I had gently thanked him and invited him to ask the same question of my client. That would have been a more appropriate and politic response. But really, why would someone be kind enough to offer a stranger a wheelchair, but not kind enough to dignify her by addressing her directly, person to person?

Maybe that man felt that those who can’t walk easily also can’t understand, or can’t answer a question.