Why is #14 Volunteer at the VA Hospital on my list? Like all these fears, I wrote fast and asked questions later. I think this one has to do with plunging in. Of being unafraid of new places.
It may also have to do with the fact that for the past few years (yes, years!) I’ve been writing a screenplay about Florence Nightingale. She was so upper-crust Downtown Abbey-ish, that she didn’t brush her own hair until she was in her 20’s! Florence Nightingale went from the lap of luxury, smack-dab into the Crimean War, where she got up-close-and-personal with amputations, cholera, lice, rats, gangrene, and horrible, overwhelming death. I’ve been asking the question: what would make Florence Nightingale choose to take this plunge? And, of course, another question: What if she hadn’t?
I’m squeamish about sickness and bodily fluids and unstable personalities. I grew up surrounded by veterans who didn’t get to worry about being squeamish…like my grandfather who drove an ambulance in WWI. Maybe this is why, when I think about plunging in, I write #14 Volunteer at the VA Hospital on my list. I’d like to think that if I were thrust into a squeamish situation, I could deal.
I sit down with the Director of the volunteer office at VA Puget Sound in Seattle. He asks me what I’d like to do for the VA. What I’d really like to do is hand out name badges to other volunteers. Something way-away from the fray. Something that features, perhaps, a nearby candy dish.
But instead I tell him I want to be in the fray. He’s delighted because what they need most of all at the VA are Navigators. Or, as the VA refers to them: NaVAgators. (Get it? the VA is baked right in!) NaVAgators welcome patients and visitors, provide wheelchairs when needed, and escort folks to their appointments throughout the hospital.
The Director leans forward, “Is there anything I’ve just told you about this position you’d be unable to do?”
“No. There’s nothing I’d be unable to do.” I gulp.
One sweet benefit of being a NaVAgator is that you get an outfit: a VA Hospital-issue green vest, American flag lapel pin and security clearance photo-ID/lanyard. I put everything on,and my son, Hugh, declares that I look exactly like a service dog. I huff to a mirror only to crack up! I have to admit that I do, actually, look exactly like a service dog.
I show up for my first day pretty confident. This job can’t be much more complicated than that of restaurant hostess-a job I accomplished with all the grace of Lucille Ball in my day. I know the drill: greet, grab the menus, find the seats. I’ve got this…
But there’s a hitch. A big hitch. The Seattle VA Hospital is a rabbit warren of different buildings connected by skybridges, snaking hallways, unpredictable elevators, and construction…everywhere. A floor that exists in one building, doesn’t exist in the next. Harry Potter’s platform 9 and 3/4 has got nothing on the Seattle VA Hospital.
The other NaVAgators seem psyched to see me. Many of them are actual veterans. Most find the job to be challenging because of all the walking. “You’ll be good for long hauls” one of them says, taking an up-down measure of me. “Lose the shoes. This isn’t a fashion show.”
They don’t seem a bit stymied by the floor plan. “Oh, the map’s no good.” One of them says to me. “If you want to get to Building 100 from Building 1 you need to take that elevator. Unless you’re headed to the 4th floor. Then don’t take that elevator.
Oh. My. God.
“Come with me” says Phil. It’s hard to make out that his vest is green under all the volunteer appreciation pins. “I’ll get you sorted out.”
We set off down one long corridor after another, across a skybridge, past the smoking lounge, through a surprisingly new (but empty) lobby, up a random elevator and then, inexplicably, back down. Along the way he sings out orders like “stay away from that elevator”, “See the blue on the floor. That tells you you’re in the North lobby”, “If you go across this courtyard, and through that door over there, you’ll be in building 18 where people get blood work done. See?”
No. I don’t see! I wonder if Phil, in his days of military service, took prisoners-of-war through high value areas. If so, he was a master. My head is spinning. I’m more lost than ever.
Phil stops. “So now you’ve got it!” He beams at me.
I feel like Dory.
Here’s the scenario I’m dreading: a member of the greatest generation approaches me. He’s wearing a USS Missouri cap and he’s wheezing. He’s got an appointment in pulmonolgy. No, he doesn’t need a goddamned wheelchair, he says, setting off, stiffly, down the “Veterans Pathway”. What I vaguely know is that pulmonology means his heart and lungs are not great. What I don’t know, with any real certainly, is how to get him to his destination.
But what I know for sure? This gentleman can not afford to get lost.
I didn’t last long as a NaVAgator. I couldn’t seem to commit the floor plan to memory and each time I returned, I felt newly lost. The patients I walked with looked worried when we’d stop at the elevator and I’d fish into my vest pocket, pull out the (no good) map, and stare desperately at it. I was struggling to find a graceful way out of my commitment when I took a bad fall and broke my ankle. I do admit that sitting in the ER that day, a thought floated through my brain that there might just be a bright side to this…
But before I retired as a NaVAgator, this happened:
A woman came up to me one day, and asked if I would help her find the ICU. “Of course,” I said, and we took the first elevator, went down a hallway, over a skybridge and into a new corridor. The whole time my mind was a blank. Where was the ICU? What was the ICU? If I were an ICU where would I be? I finally asked a doctor. “Down to 4. North side of the West unit.”
We emerged from the elevator on the 4th floor. I looked around, wondering if anyone makes a compass that could help me locate the North side of the West unit.
“ICU” the woman said, pointing to a large sign overhead.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted, “I’m new-”
She shook her head.
“I knew I was going to get lost in here. I usually come with my husband, but he’s in there.” She pointed sadly at the double doors to the ICU. “He’s not gonna make it, and then I’ll be alone. I’ve never been alone in my whole life.” She looked over at me, “So I’m actually just real glad you were here, and I had some company.”
It dawned on me that I’d seen a lot of this at the VA Hospital. People who seemed to accept that they’d get lost in this behemoth of a building, but didn’t want to be alone. They didn’t want to be alone navigating the system, or alone coping with a healthcare crisis, or alone-period.
I had a similar feeling about people when I hiked out of the Grand Canyon (#33). That I’d been able to connect with people on the trail, to just be present in moments of panic. The act of reassuring people that they are not alone seems so utterly unskilled, and yet, utterly essential.
And it feels like something I’m destined to plunge into.
© 2016 by Mary Elder