Monday, May 16, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

The unexpected greeter


“On With Life, this is Carol, may I help you?”


Carol Murken’s desk is just in the entrance. An entrance with couches and large windows and sunlight and plants and airiness. I’m not fooled by the casual spa eeling of it all. Not even by the scenic pond out front. Nope. This is a place for those needing to learn to live as best as they can after brain injury. Period.

On With Life — for “post-acute inpatient rehabilitation,” the card in the tray says at their Ankeny complex.

I’m here because my daughter’s friend is here. She walked in this same door as me. Well, actually, not walking. Or moving her hand. Or lifting her arm. A bad situation.

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So I’m a little wary on this first visit. Unsure of what I’m going to see or hear. Is it going to be overwhelmingly sad? Can I be supportive when all I want to do is run to the car and pretend bad things don’t happen to good people? I think I need a bathroom.

Ah, but then Carol’s laugh echoes around the room. It begins as a throaty “hah, hah, hah, hah,” that eventually lilts up, like she’s sliding across ice, and then ends with a musical hiccup. It’s a Broadway musical in itself. Joy-filled. A shaking fist to sadness.

“Welcome,” Carol Murken says to me. “How are you?”


Several visits and several months later, I sit with Carol. Curious. Why would anyone choose to be a receptionist in a place that deals with such hardship?

“My history is in advertising agencies,” she explains.

“I was at a point in my life where I got up, went to work, went to bed, and there just wasn’t anything fulfilling. I’m fulfilled when I feel like I’m helping others. I was feeling empty. I wanted to do something that made me feel like I was making a difference in someone’s day.”

But why here?

“It is an amazing place, which is what I love. Miracles happen here every day. You’d think it might be a sad place since it deals with brain injury.”

You’d think.

“But every day you hear therapists in the hallway giving people high fives, cheering, ‘Yay, you’re doing great, keep it going.’ It is a fabulous environment. It is so positive. And everyone here is so nice. It has been a fabulous career change.”

And so it seems.

My daughter’s friend, my friend, learns how to walk. She learns to lift her arm. She learns to type with both hands on her computer. A few months later, she roams the halls like a politician at the Beaverdale Fall Festival parade — giving waves, passing on encouraging words, cheering everyone’s success and commiserating with their struggles. I attend her graduation from On With Life with 30 other people. A gigantic group hug with a few tears. I am awed.

“I get to know the families of the person served because they’re here every day. I try to be their advocate. How’s it going today? Just a happy face when they come in the door not knowing what today is going to bring for their loved one. And if they need anything, I’m the go-to person. Anything I can to make their stay better.”

The “person served”? Not a patient? Not a client?

“Isn’t that great? Person served. That’s what they are, and it’s what we do.”

“Excuse me,” she says as the phone rings again.

“On With Life, this is Carol, may I help you?” ♦

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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