One day recently, while working as a nursing assistant, I heard a shrill, gravely cry for help pierce the air in the hallway of the long-term memory care facility where I work. I sprinted to the room where the pleading call was coming from, and in the two seconds it took to reach the room, a million different worst-case scenarios passed through my mind. Broken hip, pool of blood, oozing skin tear, gushing laceration, brain bleed. As I enter the room, to my surprise, I see “Dick,” a 90-something-year-old man sitting on the toilet.
With a breath of relief, I say to him, “Dick, what’s the matter?”
“I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes trying to have a bowel movement, and I can’t,” he said with a rough, irritated tone. I realized that there wasn’t a whole lot that I could do for him at this point.
“Dick, I’m going to go get you some prune juice, in the meantime …. try pushing hard,” I said to him. He retorted, “What do ya think I’ve been doing, ya knucklehead?”
Yep, fair. I deserved that.
Twenty minutes later, Dick still wasn’t successful in having a bowel movement. Dick’s hands were shaking from anger and frustration. He lifted his quivering hands to show me and proclaimed with a chuckle, “Jesus Christ, look! I’m shaking like a pig in a slaughterhouse!”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Residents with dementia sometimes say the darndest things, but this simile was unique altogether. I told him, “Hey, that was pretty good! Did you just come up with that?”
Proud of his creativity, he replied with a clever grin, “You bet kiddo, pretty good, huh?”
Eventually, it became more apparent that Dick’s situation called for more than prune juice and moral support, so I called the on-call nurse and asked if he could receive a suppository. I got Dick back into bed, assisted the nurse with administering the suppository, and pulled up a chair to wait with him.
Dick let out a sigh and proclaimed, “Well, isn’t this a fart in a mitten?”
Apparently, “fart in a mitten” is an actual saying. Regardless, I couldn’t help but laugh at Dick’s stark originality. My laughter caused Dick to start laughing, which caused him to finally have a bowel movement, which caused us to laugh even more. A textbook definition of a positive feedback loop. I guess laughter truly is life’s best medicine.
Oftentimes, being a health care provider is anything but humorous and joyful, especially during a deadly pandemic. It can be stressful, heartbreaking, and sometimes can take more than it gives. I know that working as a nursing assistant in a chronically understaffed long-term care facility during the middle of the pandemic is anything but fun. I cannot imagine what the doctors, nurses, PAs, and NPs in our country’s hospitals and clinics are dealing with. Witnessing the impact of suffering and death on patients and their families, dealing with insurance companies, EMRs, non-health care-related administrative duties, and the stresses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic must be incredibly stressful.
However, every once in awhile, you might experience an interaction with a patient or co-worker that inspires joy and laughter. Hold on to those experiences. Share them with your colleagues, families, and friends. Write them down as a reminder as to why you likely decided to pursue the field of health care in the first place. Celebrate these instances of joy, because it only takes a moment of laughter to alleviate a crappy situation.
Matthew Morris is a nursing assistant and medical school applicant.
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