‘The Decision’

I’d been out of town. Out of the country, actually. I’m not saying exactly where, because I don’t want those of you employed by gossip magazines to show up and harass the locals about what it was like to be close to me. But it was due north of here, in the very large country of my birth, where people in parkas drive like demons at speeds exceeding 150 decigallons per kilohour even in winter, which lasts 13 centimonths every hectare.

Even after all these years, whenever I return I learn something I didn’t know about this fascinating country. This time, I discovered deep-fried macaroni and cheese. That’s right. You heard me, and your arteries cringed just thinking about it. It was pressed into triangles, breaded and baptized in a boiling cauldron of super-saturated fat. This indigenous treat came wrapped in a coupon for a free cardiac catheterization, but since this is Canadian socialized medicine, my appointment isn’t until 2019.

Anyway, the point is that I was gone. Absent. Off the grid. Maintaining strict radio silence. So somehow I completely missed an incredible and very heartening news story that was evidently in every paper, all over the Web, and on TV. I overheard people talking about it while I was enjoying a hot dog on a stick in a mall food court, so let’s see if I get this right.

From what I understand, there was a certified nursing assistant (CNA)-I think they said her name was LeBronda Jayne-who had worked at the same Ohio nursing home for seven years, but had never been Employee of the Month. Apparently, she was good, almost legendary-many grateful patients, many satisfied family members, many supportive coworkers saying many glowing things about her. But she’d never had that plaque on the wall.

Which was surprising, since she cared with such unbridled joy and compassion, and had been virtually error-free her entire career. She never called in sick. Consistently volunteered for extra shifts. Hadn’t come close to touching the spout of a water pitcher to the rim of a glass or any similar regulatory atrocity. But still, despite all that, she wasn’t getting the recognition she deserved.

So she got fed up with being taken for granted and started talking to other facilities about jumping ship. Soon her options were being debated on talk shows and predictions were flying through the Tweetisphere. Interest was so high in her skills and services that she decided to announce her final decision in a live, one-hour TV special called, cleverly, “The Decision.”

When the long-awaited moment came, I’m told the nation sat breathless, like the Waltons huddled around the family radio waiting for “The Great Gildersleeve” to start. People clustered expectantly in homes and bars and bowling alleys and Sears appliance departments. When she finally made her announcement-that she was going to work at a different nursing home, in Miami!-America gasped.

Her skill had finally been recognized as something special, and though she was given a massive pay raise, her own parking spot, and a longer lunch break, no one begrudged her for it. Sure, some folks were critical of her move and questioned her loyalty. But really, how could she say no? She possessed a skill set universally held in high esteem, and she took full advantage of it. I almost wept, it was such an inspiring…I’m sorry, what was that you said?

Seriously? It was LeBron, not LeBronda? A he, not a she? A basketball player, not a CNA? He got $110 million for being tall and bouncing a ball? Almost ten million viewers held their breath as someone they didn’t even know decided where to pursue an occupation of staggering inconsequence? Well, I’ll be darned. How discouraging.

But not surprising, of course. Here in America, we tend to follow the bright colors, the loud sounds and, most of all, the money. We lavish adulation on actors, pop stars and athletes, and they amass fortunes larger than the GDPs of some developing countries. Meanwhile, healthcare workers, teachers, police officers, and especially pseudo-humor writers are continually undervalued.

So how do we teach people to see things differently? To flip their priorities upside down. To change the culture and paradigm. To honor and value what’s truly important in life. To reward the self-sacrifice of those who embrace long-term care as a career. It’s easy. We choose one caregiver by random lottery and pay him or her $18 million a year. Just like LeBron.

The “Who Wants to be a Very Rich CNA” show would have a rotating stage, swooping cameras, an exuberant studio audience, epic orchestral music, and smoke. Plenty of smoke. The extravaganza would be hosted by fellow Canadian Howie Mandel, with dancing girls dressed like MDS coordinators and elegant spokesmodels pulling the winning name out of a locked med cart drawer. It will be very exciting. Perhaps even Emmy-winning.

Because of all the prize money involved, the media will be immediately convinced it must be important, so the event will be ubiquitously reported and endlessly discussed on the blogs. Fortune 500 corporations will want to plaster logos all over the winner’s uniform, and Lifetime will make a movie starring Tori Spelling. Soon the dollars will start rolling in, perceptions will change, and long-term care professionals will get the respect they deserve.

And in this implausible utopia, when our society finally chooses to value substance over triviality and service over spectacle, even the LeBrons and Ke$has and Biebers and Paris Hiltons of the world won’t come away empty-handed. Their skills will still be rewarded-with all the deep-fried macaroni and cheese they can eat. For life.

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington Long-Term Living 2010 September;59(9):52-53

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