WHY behind the WHAT – The Story of Saving Grace

WHY behind the WHAT – The Story of Saving Grace
May 1, 2020

By David Hahklotubbe, gerontologist

Like anyone else, I am often asked what I do for a living.  To this inquiry, I give a brief pause, take a deep breath and launch into a TED-Talk-esque response.  You see, I’ve learned over two decades that my response of “I’m a Gerontologist” is ineffective, I will be met with one of 4 possible responses.  First, sadly, because we are an ageist culture, I brace myself for “what is that?”  Second, is the less honest equivalent, the body language speaks volumes and it’s clear they have no clue, but act as if they know, hoping that as we continue chatting, it will be clearly revealed.  Third, if the inquisitive soul knows what it is, I then brace myself for what I call the “gas face”, it’s the act of looking repulsed, crinkled nose, squinted eyes and a step backward, as if I just passed gas.  It’s often shortly followed by, “I don’t know how you can do it, I sure couldn’t”  Lastly, and enormously rare, I get, a validating response, maybe even a kudo.

So, I’ve adapted.  My current reply is; “It’s not WHAT I do for a living that matters, it’s the WHY.”  I proceed to tell them that my motivations are, at the core, selfish.  I do what I do to satisfy my burning desire of improving the quality of life of humanity, which fuels my intrinsic mandate to feel essential, relevant and contributory.  But, above all, I do what I do because I want to avoid dying with a heart heavy with regret.  I would prefer to enter my eternal rest with the feeling that I exercised God’s greatest gift to it’s maximum potential.  In other words, I did all I could with all that I was given, in the time that I was given to do it.  And in my case, it’s to improve the quality of life of seniors.

Then, I gauge their body language, wait for the pause to end and see if the conversation has any potential to move forward.  If it does, I continue.  If it doesn’t, I don’t.  Seeing as this is a BLOG.  This is where some of you will depart, and others will read on….

With fond affection, I then reflect upon my career and harken back to specific moments of ultimate heroism.  These are the stories I share.  While most people’s phones contain a menagerie of archival photos of meals they’ve consumed, selfies with conquests, or the “quick swipe nude”,  I have my own unique brag-book of sorts… the before and after photos of my beloved elderly patients I’ve “saved”.

This is Grace’s Story.  If I get enough positive feedback, I will share more stories with you.  But now, it’s Grace’s turn.  This… is Grace.

Take note of the “fancy logo” on her sweatshirt and the very stark background in the photo (2009).

I received a call one day.  It was an attorney.  She was very direct.  “David, you have a reputation of being successful in taking on “high-risk” clients and giving them a deserved quality of life.  I’ve unsuccessfully spent the last three days calling every assisted living in three counties and finally got the referral to reach out to you,”  I replied, “You’ve got my attention”.  She breathed an initial sigh of relief.  She then said, “Are you sitting down?”.

She proceeded to explain that she had been referred a case of an elderly woman with bipolar depression.  Her name was Grace.  Grace was unable to manage her own medications and had a string of episodes that lead to her current incarceration.  She allowed me a pause to react since this was where all the other providers bailed out.  I did not.  She described the specific incident that landed her in custody.  Allegedly, Grace had chased her neighbor down the street with a butcher knife exclaiming intentions of malice.  She was soon arrested and currently residing in a women’s prison.

Much to the attorney’s surprise, my response was, “this sounds interesting, go on”.  In disbelief, she continued.  “Well, Grace is the sweetest woman you’ll ever meet……when she’s on her medications.  I’ve made an arrangement that as a condition of her release and probation, she would voluntarily move into a setting, such as yours, with the explicit instruction that she comply with a medication management program.”  I said, “sounds good, when I can I assess her?”.  There was a long pause…. then, in a cracking emotional voice, I heard, “Oh my God, are you serious?  I can meet you at the prison as early as this afternoon.”  And so, we did.

My excitement at the prospect of saving this woman’s life was muted as we pulled up to the ominous building.  It was further muted as I was stripped of virtually everything but was somehow allowed to bring in my phone.  I was escorted through a dreary labyrinth of never-ending despair.  I was lavished with cat-calls and looks from inmates that curled my toes and sent shivers down my spine.  This was as close to hell as I could imagine.  We arrived at Grace’s cell block.  The women were notably less potent and a bit seasoned.  Then, there she was.  Shivering, alone, scared to death and thankful to see me.

I approached Grace and despite my training and the warning from the guard, couldn’t resist embracing her.  She simply melted into my burly arms, like a child, burying her head into my chest.  I did a brief assessment and announced that I would be happy to offer her a new lease on life, as long as she agreed to remain on our medications program.  The photo above, was taken after she had wiped the tears of joy from her eyes.  It was the first time she had smiled in recent memory.

Flash forward… Protected by HIPPA, clad in the new duds her attorney purchased out of her own pocket, we moved Grace into my Assisted Living like anyone else.  She remained on our medication management program and no one would have ever been the wiser of where she came from.  For years, only she, my nurse, her attorney and I knew.  Ironically, when it did leak out into the long-term care community, rather than lauded as a hero, I was viewed as a pariah, a foolish risk-taker and a liability.  None of the larger Assisted Living Communities wanted anything to do with me.  For me, that was a tremendous reveal and when I realized that I was truly alone in my philosophy and commitment.

This is a photo of Grace and I, 4 years later in 2013. 

Grace knew full-well that my name was David, but instead insisted on calling me, “her guardian angel.”  Be the judge, you tell me, was I right in staying true to my convictions?  Everyone deserves a second chance, everyone is essential – sometimes a little faith in your abilities, creativity and a slight element of risk are what’s necessary to do great things.  Sadly, currently, as a provider, 20 years later, I still stand alone.  Yet, the WHY behind my WHAT is a strong as ever.


So, the next time someone asks you what you do for a living, perhaps, you will take pause, reflect upon this story and go right to the heart of the matter, and let them know YOUR…..“Why behind the What”.


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