My wife, over 50 years old, recently died of pancreatic cancer. She didn’t want an obituary or other public announcement of her death, but this play is about the people who helped care for her in her final days. I think she would have agreed.
There are two reasons why I wrote this article. The first is to thank the many people who have helped my wife, family, and me through this extremely difficult time. Among them are oncologist O. Howard, MD, the palliative care team P. Jodka, MD, and K. Martin, RN, at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital; Nurses (Liz, Brian, Charline) and domestic help (Karen) from VNA / Hospice in Cooley Dickinson; Nancy B. Whitley of Barton’s Angels, who arranged almost 24/7 home health care services from scratch while several other home care agencies said it was simply impossible; and the angels themselves (Angela, Sue, Kathleen, Lindsay). If I’ve left someone out or misidentified it was accidental and I apologize.
Certainly, the low availability of home help was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which was far worse than it should have been due to the profound incompetence of the previous administration and the ridiculous organization of the American healthcare system, but that’s another conversation. To borrow a phrase from our former chief philosopher, it is what it is, and we had to work with that.
The second reason is to recognize and value the profession of home health worker. “Domestic help” is usually not considered a profession. It is typically portrayed as a low-skilled, low-wage job low on the socioeconomic ladder, carried out by under-educated, overworked people, mostly women, who are struggling to make ends meet. No doubt that is the case sometimes. (Coincidentally, in an article by E. Tammy Kim in the New York Times on Jan. 1, some of these problems are discussed from a different angle: “This is why nursing homes have failed so badly.”)
But the performance of the nurses and helpers in caring for my wife was an instructive educational experience for me and my two sons. We took care of them as best we could before they came on stage. After watching them at work, it was clear that at best we didn’t know what we were doing and at worst, in some cases, we were counterproductive.
Far from being unskilled or insufficiently trained, the aides demonstrated a high level of professionalism and technical ability in administering medication, cleaning and manipulating my wife in various positions in bed while experiencing pain, discomfort and anxiety (both mine and also those of my wife) were minimized. All of this was done with the greatest care, compassion and tenderness towards my wife, which moved me very much.
When done right, being a domestic helper takes considerable expertise that most people don’t have and hard work. Before dismissing it as “no rocket science”, one should try to take care of a person in extreme situations. I had no idea how hard it was.
The fact that housekeeping is low on the economic ladder is a shame. They help people with pain, illness and often near impending death, precisely when serious, competent help is needed most. Before the pandemic, so-called front-line workers such as garbage collectors, postmen, grocery merchants and household helpers were more or less viewed by many people as part of the furniture.
At the start of the pandemic, they were suddenly promoted to be heroes in the media and on signs in various locations around the city. But calling them heroes and putting up signs in the yard, no matter how well-intentioned, does not reward their true worth. Domestic health workers and all frontline workers, in fact all working people, should be respected and receive fair wages. Basic human decency demands it and certainly the richest country on earth can afford it.
From the bottom of my heart I thank all the nurses and domestic helpers who have taken care of my wife over the past few days.
Joseph Horowitz from Amherst is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.