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Learning Trust. And Earning It.

May 21, 2019 by

Four years ago our last child left home, and we’ve become accustomed to being just us. (Can you hear me loudly avoiding saying empty nesters?) Of course we’re hardly ever just us – there are usually a bunch of young people in our home, which is how I like it. Now our own children’s lives flow like a strange tide: out, and once in a while, in, which is as it should be, much as it takes letting go.

But recently our daughter Michelle, who lives at Durham House and is in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at Duke University, let me be part of one of her days, and sent me – probably in a weak moment – the reflection write-up she had turned in after an assigned twenty-four-hour wheelchair experience. The purpose of this unusual assignment was clear: to be in the shoes, or wheels, of those you will be serving and working with, upon completion of your degree. A genius idea for future physical therapists. So I’m guest-blogging this one, because I think it’s great.

people socializing at an urban intentional Christian community in Durham, NCDurham House community

I have always believed that trust is central in my life. I trust my housemates to be honest and cooperative, as I need them to trust me. I trust that my advisers and mentors want what is best for me and will support me. I trust in my own abilities to do what I need to do every day. Most of all, I trust in God. According to Webster’s online dictionary, trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. I thought I knew what trust was all about, but my twenty-four-hour wheelchair experience made me see things from a different perspective.

Since I live only ten minutes from school, my roommate, Ann, and I walked over at noon on Sunday to pick up my wheelchair. The sun was shining and we planned to stop in at a bookstore on the way home, taking our time to enjoy the weather. The first obstacle I encountered as a wheelchair user was that the leg pieces did not adjust, and they got in the way as I tried to wheel myself along. Luckily Ann was there to hold the many doors, so we navigated the elevators and parking lots and got out onto the street. Because I walk to school every day I thought the street was flat and easily traversable in a wheelchair, but when I wheeled myself back along the same route, every small rise became a mountain and my arms were burning in a few minutes. I learned that gravel is very difficult to wheel over.

On the downhill, Ann had to hold the chair back. She was fully in control, but I worried she would let go – and I had to trust her. With another person holding my full weight and her arm strength the only thing keeping me from landing in a scraped and bloodied heap at the bottom of the hill, I had a flash of realization: this is how new patients feel when they come to physical therapy.

Our patients depend on us to treat them with expertise, care, and compassion, and this plays out in many ways. If I am supporting a patient’s head off the end of the table as we’re doing cervical PNF patterns, the patient must be relaxed and allow me to move her neck in the correct sequence in order to successfully perform the intervention. The patient trusts me not to let go, or move her neck in uncomfortable or painful ways. When I am holding a patient’s leg and testing passive range of motion at the hip joint, she trusts that my manipulations will not elicit too much pain and that I know what I am doing. She relies on my strength to support her leg for the necessary time. So my wheelchair experience gave me a glimpse into the magnitude of what we ask of our patients when they come in to PT. “Trust me, I know what I am doing, I am a doctor” is not enough. I have to prove my skill and reliability by showing empathy in how I speak to and touch patients and take the time to learn about each one as a person first.

“Trust me, I know what I am doing, I am a doctor” is not enough. I have to prove my skill and reliability by showing empathy and take the time to learn about each patient as a person first.

Throughout my life I have known people with differing abilities, and after graduating high school I had the privilege of working with several individuals in a caregiver capacity. I learned so much from these experiences, which became my motivation for pursuing a DPT degree. Most memorably, I looked after my ninety-five-year-old grandmother in her last years. She was always thankful and trusting; it’s hard to believe she was so fearless when three of her teenage granddaughters joked around during a bed-to-chair transfer, or when we’d ride on the back of her wheelchair. But she was unafraid – and she loved every minute of it. Being unable to move on her own at the end of her life didn’t stop Grandma. We took her outside in blizzards late at night, always at her wild request – “You’re not old if you still love winter!” – with skis affixed to her chair. Or we would carry her up a mountain so she could enjoy her favorite view one more time.

older member of the Bruderhof, an intentional Christian communityMichelle’s grandmother, Pep Hinkey, 2015

Dave (not his real name), a good friend of mine who is semi-paralyzed, depends on another person to lift him from his wheelchair into a car every time he needs to drive anywhere. Sometimes when I’m sitting and talking to him, I’ll notice he seems uncomfortable. Usually it’s that one of his shoes has gotten stuck in the footrest of his wheelchair and he can’t move it. He waits for me to notice and help him get re-positioned. Or it’s that the straw has shifted in his cup of black coffee so he can’t take a sip. He is always grateful for help, and his positive attitude is infectious, but it must be tough at times.

My day in a wheelchair taught me some important lessons about trusting other people and gaining their trust in return. I now have a deeper appreciation for people like my Grandma and Dave; it’s hard to imagine being so dependent on other people, and I have a lot to learn from their patience and peace. When I am a licensed PT, earning the trust of my patients will be one of the most challenging, yet most rewarding and important aspects of my job. Empathy is my access.

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About the author

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey and her husband Stephen live at the Mount Community in New York State.

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  • What a lovely story about trust and how you learned it. God teaches us trust every day and sometimes He puts us in the middle of a tough situation, but trusting God and knowing he has control makes life so much better. Not always easy to trust and put our faith in to action, but when we do wonderful things happen.

    Blanche L Hurlbutt
  • Well said! This country and others love the idea of independence! Fact is clear, we are interdependent. Carry on with respect for all, walk in the proverbial mile of another s shoes. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. — Leviticus 19:18

    Bill Dale