“Um, I think he’s asking my name. I’m David, Steve. Nice to meet
It was my third week as a nursing assistant at Parkview Meadows,
an intensive-care facility for the developmentally disabled in Orange
County. I’d spent the previous two weeks learning the rules about
caring for people wholly unable to care for themselves. There were a
million of them. Don’t leave the patients alone, even for a minute.
Don’t feed them anything until I’d tested the temperature of the food
on my own skin. In the event of a grand mal seizure, lie the patient
on his or her side and call for a nurse.
The rules, each terribly important to the welfare of the client,
had been pounded into my head so relentlessly that, by the end of the
first week, I’d found myself waking in the middle of the night
shouting them. “Make sure the side panels are locked and secured!”
I’d scream. Having finished the mandatory two-week training period
without doing too much damage, my boss, a middle-aged Scottish woman
named Sheila, decided it was time to put me in charge of my first
client. Steve was an 18-year-old cerebral palsy patient. His arms
were curled into hooks; the rest of his body was so rigid and
atrophied you could pick him up and turn him over like a board.
Sheila assigned him to me because he was fairly low-main- tenance.
I had only to feed him dinner, clean him up and put him to bed. The
morning shift would see to his breakfast, dress him and load him into
a van that took him away to, I assumed, his daily physical therapy.
“That’s right, Steve. I’m David.”
“You think you’ll be all right, then?” Sheila asked me for the
10th time. I nodded. “I’ll be getting along then. But I’ll be just
down the hall if you need me for anything. Anything. Don’t be
embarrassed to speak up if you feel overwhelmed.”
Over the past few days, Sheila had spent a lot of one-on-one time
with me. She’d been doing this job for years, and had seen a lot of
new nursing assistants quit as soon as the training period ended and
the actual work began. Parkview Meadows was a home for the profoundly
developmentally impaired. Along with their severe medical problems,
most of the patients had IQs so low they couldn’t be measured. The
job was as tough as they came. It wasn’t too physically demanding,
but it could play a number on the emotions of the new people.
Sheila had learned that it cut down on turnover to give the new
nursing aides plenty of advice about dealing with their feelings. She
told me to try to think of the clients not as patients, but as
“More specifically, think of them as your children,” she said in
her thick Scottish accent. “When you speak of them to your mates, try
to refer to them as ‘my kids.’ Trust me, it helps. And don’t be
afraid to talk to them, David. They like that quite a lot, and you’ll
find that it helps you, too.”
So as I went about my first week caring for Steve, I made it a
point to talk to him constantly.
“How’s your pot roast, Steve? You want more Kool-Aid? Here, let me
pour you some more Kool-Aid.”
Steve would just stare at me. Sometimes he would smile broadly, as
if reacting to something I said. Sometimes he would frown. And, as
Sheila said would happen, after a couple of weeks of this something
opened up inside me to where I really did think of Steve as my kid.
Well, a close nephew, anyway. As my responsibilities increased to
include other patients, I still considered Steve my favorite. Sheila
told me this was natural: All the nursing assistants had favorites
among their charges -- patients for whom they felt especially
“So how was your day, Steve?” I said to him one evening as the
attendants wheeled him in on a gurney.
“You know who I am, buddy!” I laughed. Then I said jokingly, “So
what’s it going to be then? Do you want to have dinner now? Blink
once for ‘yes’ or twice for ‘no.’”
Steve blinked once.
I froze, the smile on my face vanishing. “Steve, do you understand
what I’m saying? Blink twice for ‘yes’ if you do.”
Steve smiled, blinked twice.
“Oh my God,” I whispered. “You can understand me, can’t you? How
-- how can it be that nobody knows this? OK ...” I held up three
fingers. “Tell me how many fingers I’m holding up.”
Steve grinned even wider, blinked three times.
“Oh my God! Sheila! Sheila!”
Sheila came running out of her office, alarmed at the emotion in
my voice. “What? What? Is Steve having a seizure?”
“No! He ... look, this is going to sound crazy, but Steve is
intelligent! He understands what I’m saying to him. There’s been some
terrible mistake -- look! Steve, how many fingers am I holding up?” I
held up three fingers again.
Steve frowned. “Whalahadida!” he said loudly.
“Dave ...” Sheila said.
“No, Steve, not now, this is important! Tell Sheila how many
fingers I’m holding up!”
“Come on, Steve, you can do it!”
“Dave! Listen to me!” I put my hand down and looked at her.
“I am such an idiot for not having told you,” Sheila said. “I’ve
got to make a note to watch that in the future. Listen, Steve has
cerebral palsy and some other medical problems. But he isn’t mentally
“He’s just a night patient here. That’s why you don’t see him in
the daytime. He’s in school.”
I stared at her. Then I looked down at Steve, who was grinning
broader than I’d ever seen him grin.
“He isn’t mentally impaired,” Sheila repeated. “He’s quite sharp,
actually. And by the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you. When he
says, ‘Whalahadida’? It means, ‘What’s for dinner?’”
“OK, then. I’ll leave you two alone,” she said, and walked away.
I looked down at Steve, who was still grinning at me.
“Whalahadida?” he asked.
I thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. “What else? Pot
roast. Want to go eat?”
Steve blinked once. And for the first time since we had met, he
and I understood each other.
* DAVID SILVA, a Burbank resident and former Leader city editor,
is an editor for Times Community News. Reach him at (909) 484-7019;
or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.