Wednesday, April 03, 2013
Saluting The Speechless
Yesterday at the VA Hospital I was working with a client. He was there with two family members, I was with another volunteer from Veterans And Friends of Puget Sound, and jointly we were shepherding this elderly veteran through the process of getting the basic exam necessary for medical assistance there.
He was certainly deserving; he was a member of The Greatest Generation and I won't go into the details, for the point of my story was this: he could no longer speak or write. Communication was difficult. It seemed as if he had lost mental function, and it's hard to tell whether he had, for his hearing was not the best either. People around him typically spoke of him in the third person; there seemed little point in speaking to him since he could not respond and it was not clear that he understood anyway.
This changed when one doctor was told that the client was hard of hearing. The doctor started giving directions in a loud voice: "Can you raise your right hand? Can you give me a thumbs' up with your left hand?" and so forth. The client did all that, subject to some restrictions obviously of a physical nature. It became apparent to me that he was mentally alert to a significant extent.
I didn't know what to do about that. I made an effort thereafter to speak loudly into his ear where we were going next, "We need to get a blood draw, is that all right?" But it is hard to keep this in mind, when the responses are minimal. The responses were there, but they were purely physical and difficult to feel as communication.
Then it happened. We were in a waiting area and, as often happens, struck up a minor conversation with another waiting person. When that person left, he looked straight at the client and gave him a salute. The client gave him a relatively sharp salute right back.
This nonverbal message communicated a lot: respect, presence, interaction, normalcy. It is a part of the military culture that was important to him. It was something he could do and feel good doing, and in the process receive the respect he merited.
For the rest of the visit, I made a point of encouraging those present to give him the salute. He always responded. After we loaded him into his vehicle to be taken home, I faced him and did what I have not done since the Boy Scouts: gave my best salute. He returned it with firmness.
There is nothing more to say.
at 9:04 PM