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Joe's Neighborhood

The grossest person in the room


joes1 Hubris is an interesting quality. In my day, they would have called you “stuck-up.” A little too sure of yourself. Self-confidence on steroids, perhaps. Whatever you call it, “arrogance” is a label that doesn’t sit well with our Midwestern ethic. To say that your cubicle neighbor might be a bit snooty is the kiss of death for him, right? In fact, it may be a venial sin to be too self-assured in Iowa. I don’t know. For that, you might ask a priest. I, on the other hand, was looking to ask a particular nurse.

On a late spring day, I headed north of downtown to Iowa Methodist Hospital. In the heart of the hospital is Younker Rehabilitation Center. They’ve remodeled it since my stay nearly nine years ago. Cozy. Warm. State of the art. And, most importantly, it doesn’t feel like a hospital — except, of course, it is. Sadly, most of the nurses and therapists are gone who tended me back in the day. But there is a familiarity even as I look at the newly created rooms, hallways, nurse stations and an amazing rehab room with a vibrant artificial tree smack in the middle.

I came to be in rehab in an honest fashion. I tangled with a van while riding my bicycle. I lost. My throat took the blow, which punched through all that cartilage and tissue we need for speaking, breathing and eating. And the punch still had enough strength to give my spine a love tap. So, there I was at rehab, nine years ago, needing to figure out how to talk, walk and eat. Oh, yeah, and breathe.

My particular problem, and salvation, was a trach. Formally known as a tracheostomy. Yup, I had an emergency hole cut in my throat with a tube inserted to help me breathe. That darn thing was a messy affair. What would you expect? You’ve got a brand new hole in a spot that shouldn’t have a hole. Your body sends an army of fluid to take care of the problem. See, messy.

After two weeks or so, it was decided by whoever decides these important milestones that it was time to try eating. “Patient was reeducated regarding swallow strategies,” and I was off to my first meal. One of my favorite nurses wheeled me into the dining room.

I love nurses. Doctors come and go, but nurses are stuck with you for the shift. Mostly women, but some men. Tough. Willing to brush aside with a shrug and a smile the shame of your body and its functions. They are your shield against the night. Many of my nurses were lovingly sassy. So many things seemed gone, but humor was a wonderful vestige of “before accident.” And these folks were funny, and sometimes in a raw way. I mean, what hadn’t they seen?

joes2As we went through the dining room doors for my first meal, the drop-down tables all had a patient with a nurse. During my time, almost all the patients were stroke victims. When we rolled into the room, many were gamely struggling with the lasagna on their plates. My nurse kindly wheeled me to the far side of the room so that I could look out on the beautiful garden that is hidden in a courtyard inside the hospital.

After my own efforts to eat, the nurse wheeled me out. In route, since I did not yet have a speaking trach, I wrote to my nurse that I was grateful for her kindness in moving me to a spot to look out over the garden rather than over the efforts of the other patients.

My friend the nurse, who had seen me through thick and thin, responded with a wicked smile: “I didn’t move you over to the window to make it easier for you. You were the grossest person in the room. I didn’t want to ruin the other patients’ meals.”

OK. I worship at the feet of this gal. “The grossest person in the room?” Really? And, by the way, there’s your test. How do you figure out if you’re being too arrogant, too self-assured, exhibiting too much hubris? Easy. Did you remember that you were the grossest person in the room? There you go. Simple. Take that to the bank.

I looked but couldn’t find my nurse nine years later. However, I send her this gift. With love. A picture of the hidden garden in the courtyard — as seen out the window at Methodist. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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