Gary Tetz

In long-term care, we deal with the unexpected all the time. Many of the people we serve are there because something unanticipated happened, crashing into their lives like a no-warning tsunami — or a tamari bottle falling from the sky. 

It was an idyllic early summer day, and I’d just come in from spending quality time in my happy place — the garden. Everything seemed perfect. Sunflowers bobbing in the breeze, hummingbird hovering over a flower, temperature just right, mood unusually tranquil. All I needed was a snack, and believe me, I got one.  

Opening a kitchen cupboard to survey the options, I rummaged blindly and aggressively on the top shelf, in the process jarring loose a full, 10-ounce bottle of tamari soy sauce. In a shocking and undesired illustration of the immutable power of gravity, it plummeted and exploded on the countertop inches away.

In that nanosecond, my world transformed to pure chaos — shards of glass hitting my chest and face, a spray of salty brine drenching my clothes, splattering into my mouth and eyes, bathing me head to toe in fermented goo. I was standing in an instant crime scene, as the liquid ran down woodwork and appliances, pooling on the floor around my now blackened bare feet. 

After the shock and awe had diminished, I stripped off my tamari-soaked garments and tiptoed gingerly to the shower, leaving footprints of soy behind me. One load of laundry and an hour of kitchen scrubbing later, thankfully before my housemate returned, the evidence was successfully eliminated. Though I’ve wondered if having 78% of my body surface covered in a thin layer of sodium spiked my blood pressure, I didn’t think to check it. 

It’s a surprising thing, to be mindlessly reaching for Doritos one moment, and standing drenched and frozen in a puddle of sauce the next. Obviously, this is a trivial example of bewildering change, completely incomparable to the life-shattering events our residents have experienced. But it definitely got me thinking about how quickly bad stuff can happen and lives can be ruthlessly transformed. 

Good CNAs seem to get this intuitively, understanding how devastating the unexpected can be and amping up their empathy accordingly. “Many of my residents were at the top of their game, going on with their lives, when their whole world changed,” one told me recently. “They were fishing one day and have a stroke the next, or they trip and fall, and suddenly are in rehab, learning to walk again.” 

Whatever their circumstances, he travels alongside them wherever the journey goes. “What I like most about my job is caring for people who are at their very lowest and worst,” he said. “They’re so down and demoralized by what’s happened, and I get to be the bright light in their day, helping in any way I can.” 

Understanding the precariousness of life and how little we truly control is a baseline skill for caregivers, and for any of us who truly desire to help others along the way. And if an explosive salt bath is what it takes for me to better understand what our residents experience, I’ll take it. 

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.