When I first met Jeff in 2001, I had just completed a master's degree and was teaching English at a community college. My degrees combined with my experience in working with words landed me a job at a legal publisher where I worked for the next decade. That experience of creating documentation led to my next career as a technical writer. All in all I was happy with how my job experience had progressed. My resume flowed logically from one position to the next. I could say with confidence that as a teacher, an editor, and a writer, I was using my education and building a solid foundation of employment history.
On July 26, 2013 I had a good job. I was making good money. I was contributing significantly to my family's security, and I was stashing away funds for retirement.
On July 27, 2013 I was standing at the foot of an ICU bed watching doctors and nurses intubate my paralyzed husband. And in that moment, none of the education, none of the work experience I'd built up over the prior 15 years ... none of it mattered.
It was as if Jeff's spinal cord injury had just deleted all of the carefully worded bullet points on my resume.
It was time for a new education.
But this learning experience wasn't in a classroom. And it wasn't about hypothetical situations I might encounter in the future.
It was hands on, and it was happening right now.
Because family caregivers like me don't take semester-long courses on how to become a caregiver. We become caregivers the moment our loved ones are injured. Sometimes we don't even realize at first that we've stepped into this role. Most of the time we don't even have a choice.
I can remember a physical therapist showing me how to stretch Jeff's legs just a few days after his injury. I can also remember wondering why she was teaching me how to do this when it was her job. I didn't realize back then that she was training me to keep my husband's legs limber because in the long haul, this would in fact become my responsibility.
A few months later, my formal training would begin while Jeff was in rehab. I was taught how to clean and change my husband's trach. I was taught how to flush his catheter. I was taught how to transfer him from a bed to a wheelchair and back again. Doctors, nurses, and therapists were my professors, and they all gave me passing grades so I could graduate.
My first true caregiving job started in mid February, 2014 when Jeff came home from rehab. The EMTs wheeled him out of the ambulance and transferred him into his bed. The respiratory therapist made sure the ventilator was working properly.
Then everybody left.
It was like bringing home a newborn and suddenly realizing that YOU are in charge, but you're not entirely sure you know what you're doing.
And while that may have been the day my new role as a caregiver formally began, my education was really just starting to ramp up.
I learned that caregiving isn't just hands on. It's also about advocating for your loved one to get the medical care he needs. It's learning how to communicate with medical supply vendors and insurance companies. It's understanding there's a major difference between Medicare and Medicaid and which one - maybe both - your loved one qualifies for and how that will impact your life.
And the troubleshooting - oh the troubleshooting. It ranges from deciding how to fabricate a stylus holder out of medical tubing, zip ties, and adhesive velcro to figuring out, in a panic, the most efficient way to get urine out of my husband's bladder during a life threatening episode of autonomic dysreflexia. Truly, sometimes I feel like my life has become a combination of Mythbusters and Untold Stories of the ER.
But thus is the life of a caregiver.
When I was in college mapping out the different ways my life and jobs might go, this caregiver gig wasn't even on my radar. And now that I'm five years into this new life, I admit that it's hard to look back at my old life at the years I spent learning, preparing, and working just to be forced to drop it all and start over.
But the last five years have more than rounded out my book smart years. I've discovered that education doesn't just come in the form of letters after your name. That real life experience - I'm talking the stuff that fractures you and drags your broken self down the path of life - is one hell of a teacher. And that like in my old life, I am still continually learning.
So while the skills I've acquired in my new role as a caregiver - like efficiently changing bed sheets with someone IN the bed, expertly dealing with all matter of bodily fluids, and gently wiping away tears on days that are just too much - might not be impressive to a traditional employer, I happen to know a guy named Jeff who is very much in need of someone with these skills.
And he'd hire me any day.
|The early caregiving days. I was smiling, but I was scared to death.|
|A confident and experienced caregiver. I'm lucky to be able to take care of this guy.|