27: Taking Time to Listen

27: Taking Time to Listen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Taking Time to Listen

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Leah was an eight-year-old patient suffering from fiber-type II disproportion. She was completely paralyzed and had been on a ventilator since she was three weeks old and hadn’t gained the strength to open her eyes until she was six years old.

I was sent to her home as her home health nurse. It took several weeks to learn to communicate with her. She would blink for yes, but would not blink for no. It was probably a year before I actually believed she understood what I was saying and could respond appropriately.

At age nine, Leah received a computer from the state as part of her home schooling program. I would put in computerized books and she learned how to hit a button with her chin when it was time to turn the page.

Leah loved to hum. I would sing children’s songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and she would hum along.

By the time Leah was ten, we would have complete conversations with her using her eyes to communicate.

When Leah was eleven, I started taking care of her a few evenings a week and started work as a school nurse.

Ironically, I ended up working with Leah’s speech therapist. When I mentioned this to Leah’s mom, she told me that the speech therapist thought Leah had brain damage and would therefore not try to challenge Leah.

I asked the speech therapist, Paula, what she thought of Leah. Paula said that Leah was cute but had no real speech abilities and couldn’t communicate. She made some “baby talk” but it was just nonsense. When I tried to explain differently, Paula told me I suffered from wishful thinking.

The next evening that I took care of Leah, I brought a tape recorder. After getting permission from her mom and explaining to Leah what I planned to do, I started recording. I would ask her what song she wanted to sing and she would hum a bar to let me know. Then I would sing a bar and she would hum the next. We went through several songs this way, trading off bars. At one point, I lost my place and forgot my line. Sensing my hesitation, Leah hummed the line for me. We recorded this exchange for a half hour.

The next day I handed the tape to Paula and asked that she please listen to it. She took it into her office to listen. A half hour later she came out with a shocked look on her face.

She told me she had to completely redo Leah’s curriculum.

Five years later, at the age of sixteen, Leah now integrates with regular students at a nearby high school. She has a communication board to help her speak and an electric wheelchair to help her get around. Since she’s still on a ventilator, a nurse accompanies her to school. But Leah is popular and her classmates love to help her out when needed.

In the eight years since I first started caring for Leah, I have learned a lot. Never assume that because a patient can’t talk or move that she’s not a bright child who has a lot to say if someone takes the time to listen.

~B. Lee White

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