Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Power of a Hug.

I was inspired by Pete's post yesterday about hugging. He told a funny anecdote about something he had done. You can find it here at Without Wax. I couldn't help but think of Ruben. Ruben was a 15 year old Native American boy that I worked with at the Psych. hospital in Idaho. He was coming for a three week stay. He had a reputation on his reservation of being involved with gang-like activity. We were briefed and warned to watch out.

I was scared of him the second I laid eyes on him. He was heavy-set with dark hair and eyes. He had a hair net on his head, black leather looking biker gloves on his hands and he had the most stoic scowl on his face. He looked menacing and mean. I was shakin' in my shoes as he slumped into his chair. But I was all business too. I think fear has a scent all of its own, and I shuddered at the thought of him finding me out. It took me two days to work up the courage to sit down with him to administer his achievement test. He had the academic skills of a second grader. From what I could tell he had developed some kind of an inventive spelling that he used for most words. I caught just the tiniest glimpse of how vulnerable that must make him feel. I truly felt a pang of compassion as I realized I had been giving him work to do that must have felt like it was greek to him. My comfort level with him grew.

One day I noticed, his hair net and those awful looking gloves were gone. On a whim I had given him some oil pastels to use and some paper and asked him to spend some free time drawing. I'd like to think, that was the day we met the real Ruben. Man, could he draw. He drew pictures of thunderbirds and other native symbols and scenes with such detail. He spent hours learning to blend the pastels and how to create shadows. As his passion emerged, his defenses went down. One of the nurses started teasing him about tickling him if he wasn't careful, and he laughed out loud.

Every once in awhile a patient would walk through the doors of the hospital and connect with us in a way that allowed us to help them. Whether we coaxed the child in him to play, or the learner in him to learn about drawing, or told the tough guy he could relax and feel safe, we each in our own way connected with him. It was a combined effort, but we saw visible signs of the changes occurring in him almost daily. So many times we were given empty promises of change from our patients. Ruben was walking the talk.

Before we all knew it, three weeks was approaching. Ruben was going to be transferred to another facility. I was impressed with the commitment of the reservation he came from which supported residential treatment and agreed for Ruben to get long term care.

Here is where the hugging comes into play. As staff we weren't allowed to hug our patients until their last day of treatment and only if both parties agreed. We had teased Ruben relentlessly that we were all going to make him hug us as a requirement of him moving on. I was the first of the day shift to leave and found Ruben sitting in his room. His bag was packed. He sat somberly on the edge of his bed. I gave him my usual pep talk and told him we'd miss him and that we would always be there for him. As I turned to go he stopped me. He asked if I'd forgotten something. No, I assured him he was free of me. He then said, well I am ready now for my hug. I laughed and said "Oh Ruben, we would never make you do something you didn't really want to do..." "But", he said, "I really want to."

It was a memorable bear type hug to be sure. The mental health worker and the gangster wannabe tough guy, with the big heart. I heard the next day it was a tearful good bye as Ruben made good on all of his hugs. And then we got our final report card from him. Much like what happens at most hospitals patients were allowed to rate us and give us feedback. Ruben's was simply this... in his inventive way he had written "Its the most love I ever felt."

We never truly know what happens to most of our patients, unless they return. Many of them do. Some don't. I don't know what happened to Ruben. But Ruben, if you are out there, I hope you are still feeling the love!


  1. I should not have read this at 2:30 in the morning... I'm just a blubbering idiot picturing this sweet lug of a boy asking for his hug.

    Man, Vicky... do you still feel called to do this? Because I think you really have a gift.

  2. I've asked myself this time and again if I could go back. I'm choosing to remember one of the best stories because honestly, there were hundreds if not thousands that weren't. When I left, I can't say that my capacity for caring was very high at all... burnout was the case I think... but I have been away from it for awhile...

  3. You need a 3 tissue warning for this one Vicky. How it tugged on my heart.
    Maybe one day, when the boys are grown you'll feel refreshed enough to go back to really do have a gift.

  4. Robin,

    Awww, its nice that you think so... I figure I'd better make sure my own are turning out okay before I get too caught up in other's children :)

  5. Ok, I just came back to check in and I LOVE THE NEW HEADER. Makes me think Spring may really come back someday...


  6. Thank you, I've been playing with it all day... (Rick only had to bail me out once!) I was totally thinking spring... the sun is shining, and its 5 degrees today... way too much irony in that.

    Scrapblogs has some really fun stuff and they are always adding new things. Its perfect for tech challenged people like myself :)

  7. Love the new design and this post is AMAZING. It should be in Guideposts or something. It definitely needs a three tissue warning.

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Vicky. It was well written and it is such a moving story.

    Have you ever Googled him?

  8. What a beautiful post Vicky. I really know what you mean. Some of those intimidating boys can be the biggest teddy bears! I have told some of my students that too.
    Never say never to going back!

  9. Anita,

    I love having you back in the mix :) I owe Pete the inspiration on that one! Isn't it funny how sometimes you can't tell what or when you'll be inspired? I don't have Ruben's last name, and couldn't keep any record of him, or it would be tempting.


    You're right, I am not closing any doors at this time... and I love seeing all the great things YOUR students say about you on the MHS fb group. I'm so glad you thought to bring your dad up to see me the other day :)

  10. My eyebrows are stuck at my hairline after seeing the new header!!!!!
    LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Thanks Robin, all it needs is a little robin and a nest up there and it'd be the bomb!

    I just love your expressions... eyebrows stuck at your hairline just makes me laugh out loud at the visual!



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