Annette Morgan

WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN

It was the last hour for me of four marathon-energy sapping days at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Tampa, Florida, where my dad had surgery for colon cancer. So many folks said to my brother and me privately “why is he going there when he can afford private physicians?” saying that they wouldn’t trust the V.A., that the doctors weren’t any good there, that the surgeons there are butchers, and so on. It left us feeling more than a little unsettled, but we delivered our dad to the emergency admitting office at 5:00 a.m. on the appointed day as requested and waited with him through the admitting process. Our WWII vintage dad trusts his doctors there and is willing to wait for his appointments to see them. He won’t go anywhere else. He was willing to wait an extra month to have his surgery done there. There were so many men of all ages in wheelchairs in that place; so many men without limbs or who had artificial limbs. It made us very sad but it wouldn’t be long before we would begin to see beyond the surface of this huge, bustling, seemingly impersonal place.

After 6 p.m. the hospital’s face changes; day patients and the doctors they come to see have gone home and the hallways are quiet. For the sake of security all the entrances but emergency are closed. I’d been there since early morning and I was hot, sweaty, hungry, and needed a shower. I was on my way out that double door, looking out into the quiet pink and gray sunset sky when I came face to face with a very small frail looking old gentleman sitting in a wheelchair at the door. It was a manual wheelchair and he had paused there to rest and to let me pass. I stopped and said, “Hello sir, would you like some help getting in?” He hesitated for a moment and then he said, “Why yes, I would. If you could just take me to the elevators, I’d be much obliged.”

I told him it would be my pleasure to take him to the elevator and off we went. He told me he was going to the Chapel and I knew where that was. He was so tiny a puff of wind could have blown him away. He was dressed in threadbare slacks, white shirt and tie, a worn gray tweed overcoat, black beret and black gloves. He wore house-slippers on his feet. He was every bit the gentleman he appeared and as we rolled down the hallway, he said “you are very pretty and you smell nice. You must have had a nice Christmas because you are very kind.” As he rolled into the elevator and turned to face the door, he rewarded me with a smile that would have lit up the whole city. That little old man sent me back to the hotel with a smile on my face.

We stayed in a hotel a few blocks from the hospital which provided a shuttle van to transport patients and their families and friends to and from the hospital and back to the hotel. All we had to do was call and we were picked up, day or night, any time. I had ridden in the van several times and on this last trip I intended to show my appreciation to the driver and give him a tip. The young man got out when we arrived at the hotel and gave me his hand as I left the van. I gave him my thank-you and tried to slip him some compensation and when I did, he drew himself up straight and tall and said, “You hang onto that ma’am, I don’t do that”. I told him I wished he would please let me, and it was then he smiled and he said, “No ma’am, you keep that. We take care of our own.”

That phrase stuck with me during the entire 100 mile drive home – “We take care of our own.” – and I realized that during the four days I was there with dad, that sentiment was demonstrated over and over again in a hundred small kindnesses to patients from everyone I saw working there. I know the system isn’t perfect and I know that many complain about the lack of care or the quality of care at Veteran’s Hospitals but what I saw at my dad’s V.A. was nice. The two words that came to me over and over during the four days I spent there were “dignity” and “pride”.