A Glass Act

We’ve already lost confidence in our economy, government, news media, and eggs. Now at the risk of shattering your one remaining illusion, I’m going to rip aside the curtain and reveal how this column is typically written.

It’s a fairly simple formula: HPEDIED (humiliating personal event described in excruciating detail) + TADCTLTCP (tangential and desperate connection to long-term care profession) = MAMA (marginally amusing magazine article). Hopefully. Sometimes.

Unfortunately for you, the faithful reader, I’ve been suffering through a bit of a dry spell when it comes to embarrassing personal missteps, party fouls, or public faux pas. I’ve had nothing self-mortifying to report, no trivial event to embellish and turn into a metaphor for an issue facing the long-term care profession. So the quest for column topics has become taxing and troublesome.

As the deadline for this particular issue approached, I was filled with the usual dread and despair. But while trying to decide whether to take a lighthearted look at RUG-IV or find the comedic side of a medical malpractice deposition, glorious fate intervened and the universe handed me a shiny new HPEDIED. Just in the nick of time.

It was a dark and not at all stormy night-a couple weeks ago. Comfortable temperature. Light breeze. Twinkling stars. Sliver of a moon. The kind of perfect evening when a nursing home administrator might hope to not receive an emergency call from her director of nursing about the med cart she just found tipped over and empty in the parking lot.

Anyway, I was standing outside in a circle of friends, flames from a fire pit flickering across our faces. There was music and light, apolitical conversation. And yes, I was sipping some fine Walla Walla wine-slowly and responsibly, of course. As frequently happens with fine Walla Walla wine, empty glasses demand to be filled, so I returned to the house to replenish the supply, holding a piece of delicate stemware in each hand.

I was a large man on a mission that night, accelerating fast as I moved across the yard. I bounded up the patio stairs toward the warm and beckoning glow of the well-lit kitchen, all the while staring fondly and intently at the people inside. They were talking, smiling, gesturing, laughing. They were people I liked, and longed to be near, and I knew that with just one more step I’d be…well, that’s when life filed an abrupt change of flight plan.

The next thing I remember was the sound of breaking glass, followed a millisecond later by a feeling I can only describe as “pain.” My eyes watered. My nose throbbed. My teeth ached. My hands stung. I looked down to see a prism of shattered crystal around my feet, then up to see a crowd of worried faces on the other side of the patio door. On the other side of the closed patio door I had just struck headlong like an oblivious sparrow in full flight.

Without getting into the gory details, suffice it to say I was wounded, and the substance dripping from my palm was not cabernet sauvignon. Apparently when one chooses to pulverize two expensive wine glasses against a hard surface with one’s bare hands, the chance of semi-severe injury is approximately 100%. It was like I was standing frozen in a CSI: Miami crime scene and I could swear Lieutenant Caine and Sergeant Tripp suddenly appeared.

“What happened here, Frank?” Horatio asked, peeling off his sunglasses and standing sideways.

“Looks like broken glass, and a lot of blood.”

“You know what they say, Frank,” Horatio said, staring into the distance and slipping his sunglasses back on. “Life cuts.”

As he exited stage left and the first screams of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” pierced the night, an alert bystander wrapped my hand in a towel and gently insisted we leave for the hospital. The last thing I heard was the voice of my good friend Doug (not his real name) echoing across the yard. “Well,” he said loudly. “Looks like when God closes a door, Gary walks through it anyway.” Peels of laughter followed-misfortune morphing into mirth.

Three hours and multiple stitches later, I was back home reflecting on my calamity. On the dark side, my thumb was numb and splinted, and my hand was bandaged like King Tut. On the bright side, I now had the HPEDIED I so desperately needed-although I’d have to tell the story entirely with my left hand.

At this point, the MAMA formula dictates a TADCTLTCP, so it’s time to determine what lessons we can draw. Plenty, it turns out. And I suggest you share these with your staff at the next stand-up:

  1. Sometimes clean is too clean. If the need arises, tell my story to the survey team or health department. I think it will help.

  2. No thumb is an island. When one of us hurts, everybody hurts-and we’re in this together.

  3. Moving from darkness to light can be a painful process. I feel like I took one in the face for Culture Change.

  4. Look ahead, but watch your step. It’s fine to focus on the future, but don’t look past the present, or it will smack you senseless.

  5. Life’s greatest challenges are things we don’t see coming. Wow. That’s deep.

People could benefit from my experience, so I think I’ll leverage the pain and embarrassment into a career as a motivational guru. Of course, I’ll need to first write a book. Here’s some possible titles:

The Seven Habits of Highly Reflective People. I think Stephen Covey would agree that seeing oneself clearly is important-especially when walking swiftly toward an immovable wall of glass.

In Search of Excellence. And Gauze. Motivational first-aid was a glaring omission from Tom Peters’ masterwork. I intend to remedy that.

I Had Been Standing Around a Fire Just Before I Walked Into It. I’ve asked Robert Fulghum to write the preface. I think he’ll do it. We attended kindergarten together.

The Sipping Point. It’s not fair that Malcolm Gladwell got a $1.5 million advance for his book, while I got stuck with a $100 co-pay, plus 20%.

But of all these great ideas, I think I’ll stick with this one:

I Don’t Care Who Moved My Cheese. But I’d Sure Like to Slap Whoever Closed That Patio Door.

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington. Long-Term Living 2010 November;59(11):51-52

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