Taking Risks

The pandemic is starting to affect my life in unexpected ways. Until last week my wife and I were staying at home, using curbside pickup to restock the pantry and refrigerator, visiting with family by computer, working on the yard and garden, and just generally riding it out. 

Then my mother fell. She’s close to ninety, so a fall is significant, and in her case, made a trip to the hospital necessary. She had surgery the day before Mother’s Day and at this writing we have just finished being part of the dance that takes place among the hospital, the doctors, the insurance company, the rehab center, and the family when decisions are needed about where best to continue her recovery from surgery. All this is done long distance right now because of the pandemic. 

I haven’t seen my mother for a while, and don’t know exactly when I’ll see her again. The hospital didn’t allow visitors except in rare circumstances (which did not include her situation), and now that she is moving to a rehab center they will quarantine her for two weeks to protect the other patients there, so no visitors. When that’s over she will likely still not be able to have visitors because the center will be locked down for fear of the virus gaining a foothold among the patients and/or staff. We talk on the phone and I get updates from the staff, but face to face, personal contact is not happening. I’m so glad my mother made it through the surgery, glad that I can talk to her and make sure she’s okay, and I sure wish I could sit in the same room with her now and then.

When I was in the workforce, I was a special education teacher and one of the prime directives we operated under was “least restrictive environment.” It says that a child should be educated in the setting that contains the fewest restrictions on his or her access to regular school activities, peers, and so on, as long as the child’s education can still be ongoing. The lowering of the level of support is outweighed by the increased opportunities for learning and growth. A long-term view of the child’s welfare, especially taking into account the time after the school’s support system is no longer available, helps guide the decisions. I thought, and still think, that that orientation is correct.

I spent much of my professional life saying that less support is justified, even preferable, if it results in a higher quality of life. Risk is inevitable, and to pretend it isn’t is a mistake. I still believe that, and I know it applies to my own life as well. For example, at least until the pandemic hit and the doors were closed, I still went to TVUUC on Sundays and sat in the same room I was in when the shooting happened. When the doors reopen I’ll be back, because my quality of life is better in that place and with those people. Part of the reason life quality can increase even with greater risk is that we can change our perceptions of what to do and how to behave in the face of new circumstance. Taking risks should include recognizing their existence and working to minimize them.

After her surgery to repair two broken bones (femur and humerus), my mother spent a very few days in the hospital before being moved to an environment that could be characterized as less restrictive. She will have access to more aspects of “normal” life in exchange for less medical support and access to specialized equipment and personnel should something go wrong.

This presents me with somewhat of an ethical dilemma. 

I believe that my mother’s quality of life will be better in a rehab facility and, eventually, an environment that offers even less support, since she will be in the company of more people including, eventually, family members, and will have a larger physical space open to her. Social and leisure activities will be available that would not be in a hospital setting, and more familiar pieces of her life before the surgery will be accessible to her.

Still there is a part of me that says, “No, she should have been able to stay in the hospital longer, where she would be safe and also could get immediate access to medical care that another environment can’t provide. After all, who knows what will happen tomorrow?” My family and I are in one of those situations where a solution that is at once clearly the best for her and also lacking any significant downside does not exist. This kind of situation is actually fairly common in all our lives, although usually not involving issues quite this serious.

As I said, a dilemma, and frankly, one of the reasons I’m conflicted about her being in a more open environment is the fact that there are a significant number of people that are not taking this pandemic seriously. For all of us, and especially for folks like my mother, taking a few minimal precautions like keeping our distance from each other and wearing facial masks in public settings is literally a matter of life and death. Time to step up, I think, and do the thing that’s right for all of us, including the most vulnerable, and that means taking active steps to lessen the risk and slow the spread of this disease. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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