46: When the Helper Needs Help

46: When the Helper Needs Help

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

When the Helper Needs Help

A Note from Joan

I want to introduce you to a woman named Janet Penn. Janet is a vivacious Type A tech-business consultant who helped me design my website: joanlunden.com. Janet is a true “Energizer bunny!” Last year Janet’s busy life as a businesswoman came to a sudden halt. She was hospitalized and learned that her life was in peril. Janet needed a kidney transplant.

Janet didn’t want her clients to worry and so she told us nothing. I later found out that the reason she didn’t want anyone to know or to help her was because she had always been able to do everything on her own. She finally shared part of her story with me, but it was not until she came to a speech that I was giving near her home in New Jersey, that I was able to look her in the eye and ask how she was handling it all.

Her eyes welled up with tears as she told me how emotionally devastating it was to have to accept help from people. The idea that she couldn’t cook her meals, wash her clothes, clean her house, and take out her garbage was devastating to her and having to ASK for help was even worse. “Why is this so hard for me?” she asked. “I’ve run soup kitchens, I know how wonderful it is to ‘give care.’ Why does it torture me to take it from others?”

I realized that this was probably a universal feeling and I asked Janet if she would share her personal journey with all of you. It is important for us all to put ourselves in the shoes of the person who is receiving care, to truly understand how very difficult this can be for many. Here’s Janet’s story:

This past year has been quite the journey for me. I am 55 years old, and two years ago, I was diagnosed with two incurable and untreatable kidney diseases that will kill me if I don’t undergo a kidney transplant. I am also a very self-sufficient, vibrant woman who never asked for any kind of help—ever. In fact, I have always been the one to help others. Now the roles are reversed. Who would have thought that this kind of thing could happen to me? For the first time in my life I have had to reach out to others for help, both physical and emotional, which has been quite an adjustment and a real role reversal for me. But then again, being diagnosed with two incurable, untreatable kidney diseases is quite the game-changer too.

Here’s a little tidbit about me: I am an avid leader and volunteer in my synagogue’s Community Soup Kitchen Program, where I have spent a good portion of the last five years providing assistance to the homeless and working poor by delivering healthy and nutritious hot meals for our guests in need. In the past, I have stood in front of our group of volunteers and told personal stories of my own struggles to feed myself and keep a roof over my head, and talked about how we must treat our guests with dignity and respect because, after all, we never quite know when we might be on the other side of the service line... Well, I am now learning what that’s like through my illness.

This past spring, I was admitted to the hospital for five days to receive two blood transfusions in an effort to keep me alive while going through the long process of finding a suitable kidney donor and awaiting my kidney transplant. Four days after my initial hospital stay, I was back in for another 10 days because I had developed a life-threatening blood clot and had to undergo immediate surgery to eradicate that problem.

As I was being released from the hospital, my doctor gave me many strict orders. First and foremost: stay home—or else! Along with this was the order of bed rest, which meant no cooking meals, no taking out the garbage, no changing my bed linens, and no showering on my own. How the heck could I obey all of that with a company to run? Well, as it was, I’d been running my company from my hospital bed (have laptop, will travel)... no rest for the weary businesswoman! I had bills to pay, employees to look after, and clients to work for! But who was going to take care of all these things while I was confined to my bed? I thought no one could do all of these things but me.

I obeyed doctor’s orders and stayed home for several weeks, and while recuperating at home, I quickly realized that there was a lot I simply could not do for myself at that time. I realized that I had to accept help from others. And even more, not only accept the help of my friends but actually ask for it as well. This was a life-changing experience, thrust upon me by circumstance and my medical condition. Since I live alone, have no children to care for me, and my mother is in her late eighties and of fair health herself, it was quite the revelation for me to realize I had reached the point where I had to fight my resistance and go for “the ask.”

For my whole life I had always been able to “do it all,” but now I was on a totally different playing field. Suddenly I had people in my home shopping for me, preparing my meals, cleaning my house, changing my linens, doing my laundry—even bathing me. I was usually the one who would do that for other people! And there I was, having always thought that asking for help was a sign of weakness and vulnerability and that I would never have to do that… boy was I wrong!

For so many years I had been teaching children and parents to be good citizens through social action and community outreach, and yet there I was, not wanting to own the fact that I now needed community outreach directed at me. I now see that it was foolish of me to think that I could survive in this world completely on my own, regardless of the situation. Besides, who really wants to live in that kind of environment anyway? Not I. How self-sabotaging it was for me to pretend my own advice to others, to help those who need it, did not pertain to me. I had to overcome my resistance to this notion and turn to those around me who could indeed help me in the moment. I am forever grateful that they did, and their efforts ferried me through one of many difficult phases I’ve encountered since my diagnosis.

I thought that if I put my vulnerability out there, I would be perceived as weak, and I didn’t want to feel that way. However what I soon realized is that when you are vulnerable (and everybody is) people see that you are in fact human, and you might be frail sometimes but you in fact become so much closer to others because of it. Accepting help from my friends, co-workers, and community created an even stronger bond than I ever knew was possible. These people did not find me a burden to them and it’s a big mistake to think that you’re not worthy of someone’s time. You would be very surprised.

I became even more humbled when numerous people told me that they were willing to be tested for compatibility with regards to my kidney transplant. Ten people offered up their kidneys to me. Ten people offered to be cut into voluntarily to save my life…. Are you kidding me? After all, it’s not like giving me the keys to your car… it’s giving me a vital body organ.

Who does that? Wonderful people.

The wonderful people who have surrounded me and supported me through the last two years have shown me that it is actually not a sign of weakness to ask for help and to accept it. It’s actually a sign of humanity.

~Janet O. Penn

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