Stories in action: Sign language and lilacs
We recently started a half-day training for new employees and for employees on their anniversary date. It's proving to be a very special afternoon of learning, recommitment and fun. One of the reasons why this training is so special is we are putting story telling to good use.
Last year I wrote about the importance of story telling and leadership. This past month was proof that story telling is vitally important.
Story telling centers us, grounds us and reminds us why we do the work we do. During the training, each table shares stories with each other and then the table nominates one to tell their story to the larger group.
I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know Nicki well before this exercise. Now, I will never forget her. After sharing her story in person, later that evening she sent me this email. Here's Nicki's story in her words. Get your tissues ready.
“When you asked us to think of a memory or resident that we will never forget, so many memories came to mind and they are all from only a short time as I have only been here a year. I have considered before on the days that leave me in tears of happiness and or sadness to write the stories in a journal so I can look back and see how amazing this field truly is.
"I am blessed to be a part of these people's day-to-day lives, caring for them and being there for them when they need someone to talk, to reminisce with, or simply sitting with them and holding their hand so they won't feel alone. These moments fill my heart.
"When I started a year ago last June I never imagined a total stranger would steal my heart so quickly.
"On my second day of work as I was following my trainer around, we ended up at the door of a resident who had just came to the floor just a few days before I started. The person training me told me she hadn't been in his room yet but had heard he doesn't speak due to some significant strokes and had lost his hearing and doesn't like his door open so make sure it is shut or he will yell. He had been known to throw his catheter bag, cup of water and his whiteboard they were using to communicate with the nurses.
"So, when I knocked and entered slowly I was nervous and had no idea what to expect. But my first thought was to try to make friends. Have him associate kindness and calmness with me.
"I entered that room with a smile and a wave and he just stared at me. He had the grumpiest look on his face. While I cleaned his bathroom, I thought of why he may have been acting out like the stories I had heard. Frustration and his lack of ability to speak was my thought. I also thought how I would get to know him, how could I make his experience at FH more enjoyable.
"Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Sign language. His hands were still functional even through all his strokes so this was a possibility if he would even give me the time of day. I waved again on my way out his door and smiled as I shut it as he stared back at me watching the door close.
"From there I immediately found my supervisor and asked her if I could ask him if he wanted to learn sign. She said by all means you can try, but he hasn't been open to much since he came to our floor. After thinking about how I wanted to approach him with this idea I decided to go for it and stopped back by his room.
"I knocked and entered with a smile. He watched me walk across his room. I sat down across from him and pointed to his white board and he handed it to me and dug through his table drawer for a marker and handed it to me. He intently watched me as I wrote 'Hi, my name is Nicki' he looked at me like, 'OK, who are you and why are you here?'
"I kept a smile on my face as I wrote, 'I know sign language :)' at the top of his board and on the bottom, I wrote, 'Would you like to learn?'
"He shrugged his shoulders and hands with a, 'How? I can't hear you for you to teach me so how on earth is this going to work?' facial expression. I wrote on his board that I could teach him signs so we can help him better because we will know what you want.
"He lit up, sat up straighter in his chair and I could tell he was engaged. I continue to smile as I reach for the board and drew a line down the middle. On one side I wrote 'This is the sign for' and on the other side I wrote 'please.' And as I sat in front of him I signed 'please' and he copied me! I nodded my head yes and gave him a thumbs up and I erased 'please' and replaced it with 'water' and signed it for him and he copied me again! I then replaced 'water' with 'toilet' then 'toilet' with 'help.'
"I didn't want to overwhelm him so I stopped there, but then I thought he should also learn 'thank you' so I wrote 'thank you' and signed it and he signed it back. I wrote that he did great and thank you for letting me help him. He gave me a big smile and signed 'thank you' three times to me really extending his hands like it was BIG thank you.
"As I left, he waved to me with a smile and I went straight to my supervisor and told her we need to print out these signs to hang on the nurse station in his room so the nurses can do it too. I got them printed for him the next day. He has a copy and the nurses station in his room has one.
"Since this day, we have been friends. I have learned so much about him by the pictures in his room and the photo album filled with a Hawaii trip he wanted me to sit and look at after he spotted my palm tree tattoo. He has amazing photos of himself in the Marines and inspiring photos of a marriage I hope to say I still have after 60+ years. He makes my whole day.
"Another short story, after taking other residents on walks all day and acquiring a blister on my foot I was going to be done with walks for the day but decided he hadn't been yet and it was a beautiful day so I could push through to make his day better. I went and asked him if he wanted to go for a walk secretly hoping he would let me push him in the wheelchair and not want his scooter as I was exhausted and sore.
"He quickly wrote 'scooter?' as to which I smiled and wrote 'OK, but you have to go slow OK?' He signed 'OK' and smiled. We headed out and thankfully he kept it on turtle speed. :)
"We are headed around back behind Kenyon when he stops and points to the lilac bushes and then points to his nose and I shook my head yes and smiled, I love lilacs. We make our way around and back up to his room and he turned as I was making sure he transferred to his walker safely and gave me a hug. He made my day. So, I decided to walk all the way back to where we saw the lilacs and cut some for him, went in and found a vase and knocked on his door. He saw me and those flowers and stood up to give me another big hug and to smell them up close. He was so happy and so was I that I knew I made his day more special by taking the time to literally smell the flowers.
"All the residents are special to me but he has stolen my heart.
A couple things strike me in her story. Notice Nicki never mentioned her “position.” We talk every day how leadership has little to do with title or position and everything to do with character.
Nicki is a leader, and we are lucky to have her. Sometimes you hear the best stories by simply asking.
Julie Thorson's “Living Leadership” blog was named the 2016 “Best New Department” Bronze Award winner by the American Society of Health Publication Editors. The president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA. Thorson is a coach's daughter at heart. She is a former part-time nursing home social worker who quickly ascended the leadership ranks. Now a licensed nursing home administrator, she has been a participant in LeadingAge's Leadership Academy and LeadingAge Iowa's Mentor of the Year. She is currently a mentor in LeadingAge Iowa's Emerge leadership program.