Socializing in the rehab unit

No one in the rehab dining hall at the hospital considered it rude to ask, “What happened to you? Why are you here?” The sudden, abrupt changes to their bodies that each had endured, screamed to be discussed.
The guy with one less leg than the day he retired a couple weeks ago, wanted to talk about the blood clots that took his leg and the other clots that still threatened his life. How could it be possible that only 10 days after retiring, his life changed so dramatically from what he had planned?! His wife sat close by at every meal, just as shocked and struggling just as much to compensate with the implications.
The man with the knee bending brace held up with a leg extension on his wheelchair negotiated his chair under the dining hall table to avoid hitting other wheelchair occupants. He said he had just been driving along when someone hit his car. Sure their insurance would cover his medical costs, but he landed in the hospital with a crushed knee, not them. “I have lots of four-wheelers and vehicles to get around with at home,” he mused anticipating leaving the rehab wing and its abundance of wheelchairs.
Not everyone asked or answered the overriding question. The tall, young man never came to the dining room. He ate in his room, worked his way through the exercises as directed by the physical and occupational therapists and never responded to the glances and tentative approaches of the strangers around him. He spoke only with his family. He and a couple others kept their distance doing everything prescribed standing out even as they refused to blend in.
The generic exercise clothes, hospital gowns or pajamas and ubiquitous wheelchairs stripped everyone of the symbols of their life’s achievements and history. Only by talking, asking questions and listening would anyone know that the elderly man had taught business courses at the college well past his 70th birthday. Or that the woman nibbling nervously through the day had had a busy, active career as a single woman for decades. The confusion that followed the incident which brought her to the rehab wing left her feeling isolated, alone.
“I guess everyone knows everyone else,” she said looking around the room of folks chatting with each other.
“Not really. They just start talking and asking questions until they get acquainted,” she was told. The next time the staff wheeled a new patient through the dining room, she looked up and smiled across the room – a promise to meet at breakfast, get acquainted and commiserate.
The energetic 57 year-old man looked around eagerly for conversation. Given the chance he worked hard to achieve a mile on the stationary bicycle. The oxygen tanks that tethered him and his mandatory exercises kept him from his goal. At meals he talked eagerly of years spent repairing engines and his hope to return to the shop he had left more than a year ago. No one pointed out his dependency on tanks of oxygen. No one wanted to diminish his hope.
All felt a warm welcome from the rowdy, heavy-set man with one leg. He cheerfully said he had come to be fitted with a new leg. “The other one just did not fit right. When I get this new leg, I can do more,” he said. Another amputee sat and chatted with him on the exercise table in the rehab unit. The representative from the prosthetic company made sure the new leg fit and watched him test it. A couple days of practice and the staff graduated him to home care.
While he was there the thin, cheerful little bird of a lady handed him her can of Ensure at every meal. She preferred it frozen into a shake. She said she had fallen early one morning at home. “I could not get up. I tried crawling where they could hear me.” Loving relatives lived close by, but that day, they had not heard her cries for help. She lay on the floor for hours before someone found her. The staff taught her strengthening exercises and talked about different living arrangements. She listened intently, nodded at the wisdom of their words – then packed her bags and left joyfully for her home.
No matter how enlightening or entertaining or educative, all the conversations with former strangers could not diminish the earnest desire to return home.