Toby the Turtle came home for a week. He was a much loved member of the family, and soon after helping to cook a meal would join hands with heroic forces to battle evil in Spiderman Vs Sinister Six wars. Toby the Turtle is the kindergarten classroom stuffed toy who comes home for a week to the proud Star of the Week. It is a great honor for the children, and I saw the kindergartener in our home puff out his chest and look important, as he carried Toby around. He loved having someone to take care of, and I must say Toby lightened the atmosphere in the house.
We all seemed to like having the stuffed toy around, not least because of the change in pace, but also because Toby brought the class journal with him. Every child who had Toby had written a page or two about what they did with Toby, and how much they loved him.
“Toby is my friend.”, ” I wish I could keep Toby with me forever.” seemed to be common sentiments across all the pages in the journal, and I must say had I been Toby, I would have loved it.
In other news, I recently read a book on aging, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande. Atul Gawande is a surgeon, and the book is a must read for all of us who must contemplate mortal life. The business of living with dignity, pride, compassion and meaning. In the book, Dr Gawande explores the process of aging using multiple examples, interspersed with his experience with his own father, who was also a surgeon. His father gradually loses his health, and despite his deterioration, was determined to lead life on his own terms.
Modern medicine has made phenomenal advances. Life expectancy has increased, and for the first time in the history of mankind, we have as many people under the age of 5 as above 80.
When something happens and people make it into hospitals, the attending surgeons and doctors will do everything in their power to ensure that they can save lives, and often let the near and dear know what the problem is, and what the medical options are, but not much more.
Dr. Gawande explains that it is up to us, as patients, family members or friends to ask and be equipped with the critical questions of living. Questions such as:
1. What is your understanding of your illness and how far along has the condition progressed?
2. Your fears or worries for the future
3. Your goals and priorities
4. What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not?
5. What would a good day look like?
Though it examines a serious subject, it is not a morbid book, and pragmatically looks at the problem of aging in the current medical system. There are lively portions that explore the elements of a happy life as much as it opens our eyes to mortality. Take for example: Bill Thomas’s effect on Geriatric care.
Dr Gawande talks about one scenario where Dr Bill Thomas, a director of a medical facility in upstate New York, was upset about the well-being of those in the geriatric ward. He being a quirky, brilliant gentleman, and felt that it was the lack of vibrant life around hospitals that is the cause for long term residents to suffer from boredom, loneliness and depression.
Having grown up on a farm himself, he petitions the management that the missing link was teeming life. After some work, he manages to convince the management that having some plants, birds etc would help people get better sooner. As soon as the nod came, he got busy, and before people knew what was happening, truck loads of living beings descended on the premises: Not a dog here and a cat there, but hundreds of parakeets, dogs, cats, rabbits, hens – a whole menagerie.
The next few days were mayhem as nurses and doctors worked hand in hand trying to get the birds into cages and making sure there was someone to feed the birds and so on. The hospital was furious, nurses complained about having more to do as if caring for the old people were not enough. Administrators complained about infections, they complained about cleanliness.
But something phenomenal came about from the experiment: Patients who were uninterested and mute took notice. They would watch the birds, and weeks later would talk, and in some cases, patients cared for the birds, and whenever they could, took up feeding the birds. In time, it resulted in fewer health interventions. People were happier and general health improved. Every body liked having some being to care for.
(You can read the section of his interview here, though the book has the whole story)
And it didn’t boil down to how the animals saved them. It boiled down the idea that people need to have purposes in their lives, and that you could offer ways that they could connect to them. That they could live for something larger than just being alive.
That is the essence of humanity. We need to care, we need to feel needed and wanted, and we need to feel empathy: whether we are 5, 40 or 80.
Toby the Turtle taught us that. Kindergarten teaches us about life in lovely ways.