The Patient

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Sean Dietrich

By SEAN DIETRICH

They tell me Mrs. Simpson was a small, soft-spoken 90-pound woman without family. And that’s how this story begins.

The lonely, elderly woman was watering her plants one afternoon when she had her big accident. She slipped and fell off her porch. Hers wasn’t a tall porch, thankfully. But at her age, it didn’t have to be. The injury was severe. She was 86.

You fall off your porch at 86, they start throwing around terms like “celebration of life.”

When Mrs. Simpson awoke, she was in the hospital, eyes blinking. She saw medical people standing over her, smiling.

Mrs. Simpson’s first hoarse words were: “Will someone please…?”

Everyone gathered around for the rest.

“…Please feed my cats?”

This made the doctors laugh. They all exchanged looks and said, “Isn’t there someone in your family who can do that for you?”

“Got no family.”

“How about friends?”

She shook her head.

“Well, you aren’t leaving the hospital, Mrs. Simpson. Not after all the bones you’ve broken.”

“…And I can’t remember if I left the oven on.”

“Try to calm down, Mrs. Simpson.”

“…I need my toothbrush, and the trash goes out tomorrow morning…”

So, a few nurses got together to send someone to the woman’s house to do these things. They watered the plants, checked the oven, packed her an overnight bag and someone even took care of the old woman’s cats.

After a few days, Mrs. Simpson had been transferred to a rehab, where she had all her belongings, including her prodigious collection of paperback romance novels, her big balls of yarn and her knitting needles.

Over the next months, Mrs. Simpson became the darling of the rehab facility and the favorite patient of many staffers. This easygoing 90-pound woman without a family.

Often, she could be seen sitting upright in bed, working on a garter-stitch pattern, peering over her reading glasses at her visitors.

She had many visitors. A dozen or more each day. They were all people who worked at the rehab. Many of the old woman’s callers could be seen baring their souls to Mrs. Simpson, while the old woman gently looped yarn around her needles and listened.

“The staff just fell in love with her,” remembers one nurse.

Some employees told the old woman about surly boyfriends, marriage problems or wayward children. Sometimes younger visitors found themselves asking life advice. She helped one young physician ask a woman to marry him. She helped an orderly figure out that he wanted to get his college degree.

She gave one nurse words that helped her find the courage to leave an abusive marriage.

“She truly helped me. She was there to let me vent and just talk it out. She really did care about me.”

Some asked gardening questions. Sometimes people asked for spiritual guidance. Mrs. Simpson even attempted to teach a few of the young rehab workers how to knit. She held communal knitting lessons from her room. Two dollars per student. A girl’s got to make a living.

Mrs. Simpson liked to read her Bible and her Billy Graham books. Although not necessarily in that order. She talked about angels a lot. She claimed she had seen them before. Some nurses remember that Mrs. Simpson prayed for their families with the aid of a handwritten prayer list she kept by her bed.

And on the day that Mrs. Simpson was well enough to go home, the staff threw a party. They wheeled her out of the rehab and the old gal was carrying more stuff than she’d arrived with bouquets, containers of cookies, stuffed animals, a floppy hat, blankets, cards.

People lining the halls applauded as she passed by. She greeted every well-wisher, kissing every hand, thanking every employee by name.

When Mrs. Simpson arrived back home, a few of the off-duty nurses were waiting for her, dressed in their civies. They had arranged a caregiving schedule with Mrs. Simpson’s neighbors to water the plants, feed her cats and cook for her.

Her doctors stayed in touch, too, and could often be seen making regular house visits after hours, checking on her.

“She became like our project. She helped us; we helped her.”

And now for the part you knew was coming.

After a few years, Mrs. Simpson’s health declined. She had no family members to attend her funeral visitation, no next of kin. But here’s the thing: the chapel was crowded nonetheless. It was full of medical staffers.

They were all there. Rehab nurses, janitors, orderlies, candy-stripers, cafeteria workers, neighbors, doctors.

“I loved her. I was in a bad place, I needed a way out of an abusive marriage, she helped me find it, she listened to me. She was just … I don’t know. Good people. That’s how we all felt about her. Guess you don’t forget the people in your life who made you feel like you were loved.”

No. You really don’t.

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