Kay at the Gimp Parade has written a really, really important post: “The Russian”.
Kay uses a ventilator to breathe. After a recent ICU stay in which a new tracheostomy was inserted, she transferred to a rehab hospital. She was unable to move independently (as she had various other tubes), and was at high risk for bedsores, something she had only avoided in the past by raising the issue repeatedly with her carers and assistants. Part of her story:
Sometime during my first night at the rehab hospital, I woke up needing help to roll over, a rather complicated process when I was so weak and had so very many tubes to avoid yanking. I rang the bell for help and a nurses’ assistant showed up. I forget her name, but she had an accent so I’ll call her “The Russian” as I did at the time to family and friends.
She understood I needed to be repositioned and she told me she needed to go get another person to help. It is commonly a two-person job in acute care settings and may even be required procedure, but when she didn’t return and my butt began to ache badly from laying in one position too long, I rang the bell again.
The Russian returned alone to tell me she was trying to get help, then left again. I don’t know exactly how much time passed, though it was easily 30 minutes since my first call for assistance, and it may have been as long as an hour. My butt was throbbing painfully now, sparks of nerve pain shooting down my leg. In desperation, I spent significant energy wrestling the pillow wedged behind my back away enough that I could shift slightly and ease the sharpest of pain to buy some time.
Shortly after, The Russian returned. Again alone. She saw the pillow had been moved and began berating me: “Why you bother me? You don’t need help! You did this yourself after bothering me? If I catch you ever moving by yourself again don’t expect me to do anything for you!”
And Kay couldn’t speak. No one had handed her paper and a pencil, see. No one had thought to offer them. No one had any interest in what she had to say.
And when she was in a position to communicate her complaint, she didn’t. Because she had no idea whether the abusive nurse was in charge, whether her complaint would be heard and believed and acted on, or whether it would simply be handed over to the person who had abused her. Someone with absolute power over her body. Someone she had no choice but to depend on in order to keep on living.
Someone who had threatened to kill her.
Was The Russian just having a bad night? Maybe. But I think she was hazing me. Three long months later, on the night before I came home, she stepped into my room to tell me what a pleasure of a patient I’d been. “No trouble.” Compliant, she meant, of course. Less needy than other folks. There hadn’t been a night for those whole three months that I hadn’t been acutely aware of whether or not she was on duty.
“Conditioned compliance”, tigtog calls it. This is what happens when people with disabilities are treated like non-humans by the people who have power over them. Sometimes it’s not a “choice” to not report abuse – it’s a survival tactic.