What A Difference A Year Makes

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This isn’t the day I had planned. Today, December 21st, I was supposed to be travelling to Maryland to enjoy a Christmas production featuring Commissioned, the Winans and Tamela Mann. Earlier in the week there were nursing issues threatening the trip, and frankly, I wasn’t bothered by the idea of canceling at that point. For some reason I had not built-up any excitement about it so the idea of not going didn’t bother me. But then, the nursing problem was resolved and all the pieces fell into place. Additionally, there was a strong possibility of meeting Fred Hammond through a close family friend, which would’ve been great! Now, I’m excited! Jennifer, along with Pamela Learned and Danielle Lewis had managed to plan a weekend that would include not only the previously mentioned event, but  attending my church and Longwood Gardens for their Christmas display! I was genuinely hyped…and it all fell apart!

A malfunction with my wheelchair derailed EVERYTHING at the last minute! I was crushed. This is where the assault begins. The enemy combined with my humanistic mind conducted a multi-fronted attack to depress me. They used weapons such as:

- This is just one more preventable event that you have to suffer through alone while everyone around you happily enjoys life.

-  I’m lying in the same spot I was yesterday, and the day before that; and tomorrow, the day after that…

-  Serves me right for looking forward to anything.

-  There were other possible options but you weren’t given the opportunity to explore them.

-  Few people REALLY understand or care what you’re feeling, they visit your world, leave a kind word or two, and they’re gone.

-  Once again, your holiday will be just like any other unremarkable day.

-  To add further insult, now your daytime nurse is sleeping.

Then came this thought…where were you one year ago today? Well, that’s easy. I was laying on a stretcher waiting to have my tracheotomy and feeding tube surgeries done. It was cold, crowded and uncomfortable in the holding area. It was similar to boarding an airplane, being seated, then being informed of an hour or so delay for weather. Jennifer and I sat for what felt like hours, watching the clock and other patients being wheeled into their procedures. While waiting I had Jennifer make phone calls to my oldest brother, Dwayne Bowens (it’s his birthday) and to my old job (CYR) where we spoke to homie Charron and my other mother, Mrs. Coleman. Afterwards, I was ready. Jennifer kissed my forehead, assuring me she’d be there when I came out. I was wheeled in, transferred to the table, introduced to the surgical personnel and asked to count backwards from 10, 9, 8…

Light peeking through half-closed eyelids, then suddenly awake! I can’t breathe! My nose isn’t working! I’m trying to tell Jennifer, the nurse, ANYONE I cannot breathe! They’re telling me to relax, telling Jennifer I’m okay. OKAY? #@!*!! I’m trying my best to scream…nothing. Suddenly exhausted and resigned to die, I stopped trying to breathe, and the breath came (that’s another sermon for another day).

This was the beginning of a new life for me. I’d spent 15 years on the other side of this. So many years of Linda Vitale carrying that dreaded admissions notice; the trache patients meant lots of extra work added to an already overstuffed workload. Now I WAS that extra. But flash forward 365-days and I’m doing wonderful! I’ve exceeded my expectations manifold! I was literally waiting to die! But God said LIVE!

I have learned to trust what He says over what I see, hear or feel. So concert, Fred Hammond, Longwood Gardens, Covenant Fellowship…I’ll catch on another day. But I choose to rejoice on THIS day rather than lamenting and resenting! And I look forward to Christmas even though it’s not really the day Christ was born, and it was previously a pagan holiday celebrating winter solstice; it’s the day set aside to recognize His arrival. Without which there would be no eternal hope! So as you give, receive and love, don’t forget to acknowledge He, whom we celebrate! Love ya Fam!

Turnabout is fair play!

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In 1995 I became a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), and since then I’ve spent all but one year of my nursing career working in nursing homes. In terms of what one can experience in that setting, I had a wide-ranging experience there. I was a charge nurse on the skilled-nursing unit primarily, but I worked all over as needed. I frequently served as team leader, treatment nurse and even house supervisor in an extreme circumstance.  I recall several co-workers commenting that they wouldn’t do what I’m doing without an increase in pay. The fact is, the experience was more valuable to me than a few dollars. You see, the funny thing about organizational hierarchy, and this is especially true in nursing; it’s frequently perceived that the person one step above you isn’t really doing much! LOL! I really enjoyed the increased responsibility and embraced the challenges they presented. Additionally, I was proud of the trust that administration had in me! I eventually made it to department head of a program which I helped to develop, the Restorative Nursing Program.

The best part about these experiences was serving the residents (patients) in a much more in-depth way. In addition to their medical needs, I was able to positively impact their psychological, psychosocial, nutritional, recreational and functional mobility areas. I even assisted in educating family members concerning their loved ones; helping with conflict-resolution, decision-making, and providing a sense of clarity. It wasn’t the easiest avenue in my field but I loved it!

Now I’m on the receiving end of the nursing process in the most extreme way! Having cared for many residents like me, complete/total care, the change in perspective has been drastic! As a nurse, I relate to my experience on various levels. The following are some of the revelations from my perspective turnabout:

1) If you’re unable to or have difficulty communicating, people often expect more patience with their attempts to interpret you than they have available for your attempts at communicating.

This is a tricky issue and tough for both sides. I can recall many instances when a resident became upset because I had difficulty understanding what they were saying. I tried various methods to make it easier by allowing them to write, allowing them time, even obtaining help from people known to have success with interpreting that particular resident. What I’ve found is most people don’t have much patience in that regard. Though it’s understandable to a degree when in a hospital setting, where you have multiple patients with pressing needs, but I’ve had nurses come in, turn my call-light off and leave without even attempting to discern what I needed. In the home setting where you mix in untrained family members, fatigue from full work-days, children, other family dynamics, their own physical and/or medical needs; things can become challenging for everyone

 Over time, you simply stop expecting EVERY need to be met.  I adjusted my expectations to deal with certain issues like minor itching and discomfort. Now you’re not having nurses avoid your gaze as they pass your room, and reduces the strain on the family and friends that partner in my care.

2) Regardless of the time of year, urine gets cold extremely fast, especially when you’re laying in it.

I am very fortunate this regard in that it’s only happened on a handful of occasions in the three years I’ve been sick. Of that handful, only once was a case of the “I can’t hold its”. The others were nursing gaffes during which I was either deprived oxygen long enough to induce a sort of pre-fainting release or unattentive urinal handling (smh). I can recall beginning shifts with CNAs reporting that they were finding residents surrounded by rings of urine, (for the uninitiated, that’s usually indicative of length of time and/or how many times they urinated since being changed).

I have a new understanding of the utter degradation and humiliation of what that feels like! If it were a regular and routine occurrence I don’t know what would be worse, the constant degradation or the eventual acceptance and resignation to it.

3) For those of us who can communicate; when folk ask you how you’re doing, 75% wanted a brief positive answer like “Doing well!” or “Blessed by the Best!”. Another 20% can tolerate a brief negative response like “Not too good today.” or “I’ve been better.”. Very few people really want details either way.

I have to offer this caveat, 95% of my communication is done online and most people don’t have time for long conversations during their drive-bys on Facebook and other social media. But I noted this long before I became ill. People generally don’t want to be bogged down with the gravity of one’s day. Especially dealing with their own stuff, or perhaps trying to sustain their day of positivity. Either way I got it! The world doesn’t revolve around me and my issues; only MY world does! That’s partially why I started a blog, for those few who want details! I reserve FB and the like for generalities and prayer solicitation.

4) Focusing on others keeps me from dwelling on myself.

I remember the day quite clearly. February 14, 2011, around 1:00pm the telephone call came through informing me of the possibility of a diagnosis of ALS. I sat still for about an hour or two. Then, I reluctantly researched and familiarized myself with what ALS entails. From then until now, there’s been few surprises. Occasionally, looking at my situation can get me down but I’ve found that focusing on others is key to overcoming that. When I see people expressing hard times, I say a prayer, send a message or both. I’m always cognizant of the fact that things could always be worse. A few years ago, I don’t know if I would’ve believed that it would be possible to be here, and not be chronically depressed. My Lord has certainly kept me!

5) There is power and comfort in the human touch of love.

As different aspects of ALS have overtaken my body, one thing has remained steady. The touch of those who truly love really makes any day better! The absence of loving touch, especially for someone who’s paralyzed, can be a brutal, dehumanizing blow! Consider how often you rub your hands together in a day, scratch your head or rub your nose.  Now think of no touch, save what’s medically necessary. It would be horrible. When I was in the hospital, I had family that would simply hold my hand, or rub my feet for their entire visit! The warmth and comfort it provided was immeasurable!

Ultimately, there’s one lesson that supercedes all others. God’s power and presence is the prevailing reason that I thrive. Whether through scripture, song or prayer; He’s the source of my joy! Jesus is definitely the reason that I can still smile through this, my season!

Battlefield: The Mind

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Since I was a child I’ve always had a strong imagination. For this reason, playing alone was never a problem for me. Up until the age of 10-ish, television provided the backdrop for my imaginary adventures. One day I was partners with Steve Austin (Six-Million Dollar Man), and the next I’d be teaming with Jill, Sabrina and Kelly (Charlie’s Angels); always battling the bad guys. I even investigated mysteries with Scooby, Shaggy and the gang! There was never a shortage of characters for my alone time. When all else fails I always had wrestlers to do battle with!

In my teen years, my musical aspirations took over. I sat at home studying drummers. Since there was no internet, I studied the one’s I saw. Vernon Johnson was my favorite (years later we became tight brothers), but there was also Jerry MacBeth, Walt Lewis and even John Lewis III (young rivalry at church)! I would play along with cassettes that I recorded of services; on my lap and in the air. I virtually pretended to be them, mimicking each move for days on end. Eventually I started playing bass guitar and played along with Walter Hawkins, Keith Pringle and my favorite bassist, Fred Hammond of Commissioned! I even followed behind my brother Peter and played the tuba for several years. I finally found my passion with keyboards and that’s where I stayed. As a keyboardist/organist, I studied Randy Oliver, Thurston Cox, Willis Hickerson, Steven Ford, Zak Williams and Bryant Pugh. From mannerisms to technique, I spent time emulating each one. It was my method of learning. Essentially, I mimicked and copied people I admired until finding my own niche.

Flashing forward to now, in my present, temporary condition; my mind is probably overactive. Consider this. In the course of a normal day most people go through a series of interactions with greetings, chitchat and goodbyes. Some of these are interspersed with other necessary communications regarding work, school, children/family concerns and personal relations. In each instance there is a thought (Hey, there’s so-and-so), a physical action (What’s good Man?), a consideration of their response and physical response to that (Yeah, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about that) and a resolution (Alright, talk to you later). Often as a result of these various communications conflicts, misunderstandings and hurt feelings are initiated, confirmed or resolved. Sometimes love is established, other times hate is fueled. The same can be said of faith, confidence, security and any other facet of our emotional states. They all begin within and manifest in our actions or inaction. Inevitably, my mind is periodically overrun with conflicting emotions and regret.

I have found various ways to address this. Prayer has helped but it’s not always an answer unto itself (more on that later). This may be surprising but Facebook has been extremely useful! Due to its gross popularity, I’m able to connect with people from almost every juncture of my life. Taking my time, I’ve been able to apologize for wrongdoings and achieve reconciliation. Where reconciling isn’t an option (it takes two to tango), I’ve at least been able to free my spirit from guilt by apologizing. I’ve also been able to let various people know how special they were to me. All this time in my mind I’ve been able to identify people who’ve been in or through my life that’s made positive impact. Perhaps they didn’t know, didn’t care…or maybe they were at a point where they thought nobody cared! Either way I reached out to them; some were happy, some lukewarm, some unresponsive but it was edifying regardless.

However, the most significant battle in my mind is waged against my faith. The enemy (Satan) and my humanistic mind (logic) send their Black-ops and Seal Team Six in, armed with such firery darts as: “You see that you’re STILL in this bed, you ain’t healed!”, “Have you seen ANYONE get up from ALS? Cancer, brain tumors, diabetes…yes; but not this!”, “You’re only deluding yourself, coping mechanism against the inevitable!” and “Everyone dies and this is how you’re going out so just accept it!”. Meanwhile my spiritual response begins in my spiritual head, enclosed in the helmet of Salvation it signals my left hand, which intercepts those darts with the shield of Faith. Then it goes on the offensive by signaling my right hand which has the sword of the Word, delivering blows like: “By His stripes I am healed!”, “All power is given unto Me in heaven and earth!”, “Behold, I am the Lord, God of all (even diseased) flesh; is there anything too hard for Me?” and “These things and more will you do in My name!”. My heart, secured behind the breastplate of righteousness, now emboldened and strengthened grows with each small individual battle won. They’re brought back to remembrance in times of weakness and tough battles. Finally, as my feet, shod in the preparation of Peace remain pressing forward, they leave a peace that surpasses all understanding wherever they tread. It’s a daily battle but with a predetermined outcome!

So what am I trying to convey through all of this? Simple. While you are yet able, consider those you may have offended in the past, and apologize. Do this even if you don’t agree with their reasons, for it doesn’t lessen their pain; and have no expectations for a positive response. Your apology frees you up regardless of the response. Next, forgive anyone who has offended you. Where it’s feasible, let them know they’re forgiven; they may receive freedom also. Finally, put on the whole armore of God that you may withstand the attacks of not only the enemy but yourself! Love ya Fam!

Thankful…..For What?

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In the weeks leading up to today I’ve been admittedly ambivalent. There are numerous commercials, facebook posts and household conversations about menus, cooking devices and travel plans. Make no mistake, I have no resentment toward any of these, in fact they keep me connected and engaged. It’s a day of food, family, friends, football and fun. This is precisely why I feel the way I do! Consider this.

Last year this time I was in Trevose with my parents. I was on a bipap machine around-the-clock so a mask was always on my face. My voice was soft, often unintelligible. I designed a communication chart with letters allowing someone to spell out letter by letter my needs, thoughts and responses. I was totally fed by my CNA, or one of various family members. My food was chopped in a processor. I usually consumed anywhere from several tablespoons to a small bowl. The majority of my calories and nutrition came from Ensure juice, not to be confused with their shakes. Those were too thick for me to drink through a straw with my weakened oral muscles and diaphragm; and a straw was needed to get nectar-thickened liquid to the portion of my mouth that was capable of swallowing. With all of this I was still losing up to 20% of liquids down my chin into my clothing protector. It was only one of many degrading processes my life now entailed.

Despite these challenges I was still able to partake of the delicious holiday meal that my neice, Tasha prepared. Trust me, turkey, stuffing, gravy, candied yams, string beans and such may LOOK differently coming out of a food processor but it tastes just as good! LOL! I had some old neighborhood friends come visit and reminisce, it was enjoyable. It may not have been quite as years past, but I was a full participant.

Now, I’m back in Aldan with Jennifer and our children. Because of my need for continuous monitoring and gaps nursing hours, the family gatherings usually happen here. This allows my household to fully participate without having to rush back and forth. This means there will be a house full of food, laughter, debates (inevitable), good-natured ribbing and conversation. In other words, a bunch of stuff that I can no longer do. Again, there’s no resentment to it happening here; it would be no easier if they went elsewhere and left me with a nurse or if they did a stay-at-home celebration denying the traditional gathering for my sake. The weight of my limitations in this regard are mine alone. Finally, when my parents-in-law Bill and Becky begin the around-the-room “what you’re thankful for” I’m thinking there’s not much for me to say considering everything I listed above.

Suddenly, this dropped into my spirit: “Consider your last 365 days”. Okaaaayy. Wow, I survived a life-altering surgery that despite it’s drawbacks (no talking, eating, vent-dependent, tubefeeder), it has undoubtedly extended my life. Actually, it’s improved my life. No more struggling and failing to meet my nutritional requirements. Though my airway requires care it provides an easier breathing experience than before! I also survived a grueling and depressing 2-month rehab (more on that later as the anniversary of that experience is less than a month away) that saw me taking psych meds and having therapy sessions in attempts to cope. Now I attend church, concerts, theater and parks!

So, it turns out that sometimes when its difficult to identify blessings, and everything seems bleak; a vantage-point adjustment is exactly what’s needed! I encourage you to recognize when all you see is a pile of negative pressing around you, it’s no accident! It’s a plan to steal your joy! Fact is, life is full of positive and negative events. If all you see is negative, then somewhere is the omitted positives! Refocus and fight for your joy, it’s YOURS!!! Have a Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for indulging little ole me. God Bless!!