27 January 2014

Once an OT, Always an OT

Becoming an OT has ruined me forever!

I can’t people watch without analyzing the person’s gait pattern, I can’t walk into a building without noticing its accessibility, and clearly I can’t take a commercial airline flight without doing an ADL toileting session!


I’ve been away from Galmi this week with two colleagues . . . we attended a workshop on how to ‘sharpen’ our ‘interpersonal skills’ . . . NO!!  That's  NOT what the kids are calling a 'singles retreat' these days!  It was actually one of the most valuable trainings I’ve done over the past five years . . . examining the areas of conflict management, learning to be a good listener, maintaining margin in life and managing stress, helping others with grief and working through confrontation.  Again, best training I’ve had in a long time!

Well, as we were flying back to Niger, all the water I had been consuming in order to stay hydrated finally filtered its way through my kidneys.  As I negotiated the turbulence to make my way to the back (what is it is with me and airplane toilets, anyway?!), an old woman, wearing a thick black cloak, stopped me and started speaking to me in a language I didn’t understand.

Pardonne?’ I asked, unsure if I just couldn’t hear her over the hum of the turbines.  

Ojavjlkjijw?? Ojavjlkjijw??  Ojavjlkjijw??’ she repeated.

I stared at her and shook my head, as I told her in French that I didn’t understand what she was saying to me.

The girl sitting next to her spoke on her behalf, ‘Toilet.’

I pointed to the back of the plane, and in French said, ‘They’re in the back, but they are occupied right now.  So you’ll have to stand and wait.’  

Both stared at me.

I tried Hausa.  

This time they both nodded as if they understood.  They didn’t look Hausa, but you never know!

As I waited in line, the old Mama had replaced her hijab and full veil, as she stood all I could see of her were her eyes.  She widened them, asking if she could come. 

I nodded, and she made her way to the back of the plane.

I was a little surprised when she walked right passed me and reached for the door handle of the lavatory. 

‘She’s still inside,’ I said in Hausa, ‘We still need to wait.’

It was then that I realized that while she had nodded, she clearly didn’t actually understand Hausa . . . or maybe it was just my accent.

I tried to use hand gestures to indicate that someone behind the locked door, but my charades failed me.

Trying to come up with something else to help my new friend understand, I pointed to the sticker on the door of the stick-figure woman changing the stick-figure baby’s diaper on the stick-figure changing table, hoping to get the concept of ‘person’ across.

Tapping the stick-woman with my index finger, then pointing to the door . . . ‘Inside, she’s inside, we wait, then she will come out,’ I said as I drew my hand towards me, hoping to marshal her into understanding.

She furrowed her eyebrows at me . . . and when that is all you can see of a woman's face, it's very telling!

I pointed to the little red universal symbol on the door that indicated ‘no entry’.  She seemed to understand, but turned to the second lavatory and tried that door.  I pointed again to the red symbol above the handle  . . . this time the light bulb seemed to come on and she let go.

As we waited for our co-passengers to finish, this gentle lady’s eyes smiled at me from behind her veil.  I smiled back.

She asked me something in a language I couldn't understand, but thankfully we were interrupted by a man exiting the second stall.

I invited her to go in. 

She stepped in and hesitated . . . then turned.  Her eyebrows asked the question 'Now what??'

I found myself in a bit of a predicament.  Clearly she understood the concept of going the toilet . . . but this was obviously her first time in an airplane lavatory.  Function-wise, she'd be fine . . . it was her understanding the use of the appropriate technology that concerned me.  

For a split second I felt completely awkward . . . we are in the middle of an airplane . . . a mile above the earth . . . surely my license to practice as an Occupational Therapist is slightly out of its jurisdiction and it would be impolite to presume that a woman who has lived a whole life would need this foreigner to explain 'sit, don't squat, then flush, and wash your hands'.

But then I thought 'what if she were my mom?'  What if when my mom came to visit me in Niger and she was confused by something new and couldn't comprehend the language and a stranger who understood what was going on just ignored her because it was, well, awkward??  The thought made me miss my mom and I decided the right thing to do would be to treat this woman as kindly as I would want the daughter of a stranger to treat my mother.

Suddenly my inner-OT forgot that we were surrounded by 180 other passengers and I began to point and act out what it was she needed to do . . . simultaneously giving my instructions, first in French, then in Hausa, hoping something might sink in: 'Go in' . . . 'Lock the door' . . . 'Lift up your gowns' . . . 'Sit down' . . . 'Do what you need to do' . . . 'Wash your hands' . . . 'Unlock the door'.  

I pointed several times to the lock on the door and slid it back and forth to indicate the necessity of locking it so she wouldn't be disturbed and unlocking so she could exit.

She blinked at me . . . only this time, I couldn't tell if she was extremely appreciative or thought I was out of my mind . . . I'd prefer to think the former, but the latter might accurate.

The old Mama took a few steps in but didn't closing the door.  I projected my cultural norms on the situation and shut it for her.  The other lavatory was now unoccupied and more passengers were approaching to get in line, I needed to hurry up before I lost my claim to the empty stall, but I was afraid the man heading down the center aisle towards us didn't know that she was inside and would walk in on her.  She values that no man outside her family see her face, and I know how I feel when someone accidentally walks in on me . . . and I come from a world where I expose my legs in public!

As I was about to surrender my place in line, a flight attendant approached and asked if something was wrong.  I told her that an old woman had just entered but hadn't locked the door--without a word, she cut me off, lifting the little 'LAVATORY' sign on the door that revealed a secret locking mechanism.

She slide it to the right, shrugged and walked away.

'GENIUS!' I thought, as I turned into the other stall.

By the time I came out, Old Mama's door was rattling . . . she couldn't figure out how to undo the latch.  I flipped up the sign and slid the lock open.  The door popped open and Old Mama was standing there, wide eyed.

'Finished?' I asked with my words and my eyebrows.  Something must have translated because she nodded profusely.

We returned to our seats without another word or gesture.

But my brief interaction with this sweet woman whose name I will never know has kept me thinking about all the times that I let 'awkward' trump 'kindness' . . . times when my instinct is to be helpful but I shy away in the fear of being intrusive or presumptuous.

The Hausa call that kind of help 'hospitality' . . . in the States we say 'random acts of kindness' . . . Jesus called it 'love'.  Love that spills over to bless someone I will never know beyond that shared moment. 

Why do I let the fear of awkwardness overpower the gift of love?

How simple is an offer of directions to a group of lost and wandering tourist, a helpful coin in the line at the grocery store for the frantic mom-of-the-screaming-baby scrambling to find one at the bottom of her purse, or a sandwich and hot cup of coffee for the homeless man on the corner . . . little things that say 'I'm not to busy with my own life to notice you there', 'Let me take my [knowledge] [money] [time] to bless you' and 'I love you because Jesus loves me'.


Rachel Wetherall said...

This made me smile, I am only a year in and I already can't walk past someone using a walking aid without calculating whether it is at the right height. And sitting on someone else's sofa is a nightmare, I am constantly worrying how they will raise it if the need arises. I love the message though, just as we can't turn of the OT, we shouldn't be able to turn off the human kindness. Thank you.

Christian Simple said...

Its was a wonderful message and I really enjoy reading it. Thanks for sharing!! http://www.dberruti.blogspot.com/2014/01/once-ot-always-ot.html