CHRISTMAS AT LAGUNA HONDA
“When life is at its worst, there is still life to be had, there is still hope to be found.” – Laguna Honda
Spiritual Care Director, Bob Dee
Christmas morning – quiet, clear, not a cloud in the sky. The air is crisp after the recent rains. The sun casts its bright light on the hillsides of Point Reyes which are afresh with a soothing green. Tomales Bay shines like a jewel, a brilliant treasure and feast for the eyes of us who are blessed to live here.
I am on my way to San Francisco, my devoted terrier, Scruffy, securely belted into the back seat next to colorful gifts and tasty goodies. We are going to visit my 28 year old son, Dylan, who, tragically, was struck by a car while hailing a cab in the Mission District on August 17th, 2014. Following two months at San Francisco General Hospital, most of the time in the neurological intensive care unit, he transferred to Laguna Honda Hospital where he is now in rehabilitation for a severe traumatic brain injury. My purpose for writing is not to focus on him, but to acquaint you with Laguna Honda and to contemplate and hold close those who are spending this festive season in acute and chronic care facilities. It is my belief that most of us do not give them considerable thought, especially at this time of the year.
Following a smooth ride through Marin, south on 101 and across the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, I stop to pick up Hugh, Dylan’s father, at his Mission District apartment. We then proceed through the nearly-empty city streets to visit our son.
A grand facility, Laguna Honda is perched atop a hill between the Forest Hill and Mt. Davidson neighborhoods of San Francisco. In existence since 1867, initially as an almshouse for the city’s first residents, the pioneers of the Gold Rush, it has evolved into today’s 62 acre campus which provides three levels of care: Acute (open to Laguna Honda residents only), rehabilitation, and skilled nursing. Owned and operated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, it houses 780 residents. Requirements for admission are that one must be an adult or senior San Francisco citizen and have a medical condition as a primary diagnosis.
As noted on their website, Laguna Honda’s rehabilitation sector provides physical, occupational and speech therapy as well as vocational programs. The skilled nursing services include:
• The only skilled nursing facility for people with HIV/AIDS in the San Francisco Bay Area
• A nationally-recognized program for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias
• Group living for people with developmental disabilities
• Treatment for multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases
• Therapeutic services for those with traumatic brain injuries and the effects of stroke
• Guidance and support for people with psychological difficulties
• Complex care for those with multiple diagnoses
• An award-winning restorative care program that assists residents to retain and reclaim physical competency
• Pain management and end of life care emphasizing comfort and dignity, including an in-house hospice oriented in conjunction with the Zen Hospice Program of San Francisco. No one dies alone at Laguna Honda. There are two staff chaplains, eight interfaith volunteer chaplains and two pastoral leaders from the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco.
The new Laguna Honda features three buildings which comprise California’s first green-certified hospital. It is composed largely of recyclable materials. Alternative fuel and electric vehicles are used in its operations and management. The hospital is cleaned with environmentally friendly chemicals and patient rooms are full of natural light and operable windows. Funded partially by the endorsement of city voters in 1999 to use 141 million dollars from a settlement against the tobacco industry, the green hospital has also commissioned 18 artists through the Art Enrichment Ordinance. Throughout the facility one can appreciate projects that energize the senses.
Ample, free parking is available and I find a spot close to our destination. Hugh and I proceed to the South building, packages in hand. Scruffy is excited; he loves visiting here and he is welcomed. In the spacious lobby decorated with a tree and buzzing with the activity of other visitors, Scruffy gets a good deal of attention. Earlier in the morning he obediently sat in the kitchen sink to get a warm bath which was followed by a blow dry. He looked especially festive in his red harness and leash and collar, the later with a big green bow attached.
After checking in, we proceed down the Esplanade, a beautiful, stimulating, wide corridor exemplary of a town’s main street. There are art studios, an indoor-outdoor cafeteria, a beauty salon and barber shop, community theater and multi-media library. Works by the commissioned artists, as well as those by residents, fill the walls. Tapestries depicting the hospital’s history add interest such as President Teddy Roosevelt’s visit in 1909 and images of all the Directors of Nursing. One can also see from the Esplanade the lush park which is central to all the buildings. Alongside the park is the farm: home to hogs, chickens, goats and others. It is a petting zoo and central to the animal therapy program. Animals are brought into the hospital to visit those who are unable to get outside. Also in the park is the site of the horticulture program. Residents can grow their own food in raised beds which are wheelchair accessible.
Planned for healing and well-being, each residential floor is composed of four households each structured as an individual neighborhood with a Great Room at its center to encourage activities and a community atmosphere. Decorated for the holiday, it is filled with tables and benches where people gather. It is here that we find Dylan. He had just finished exploring the hallways in his wheelchair which has an alarm device attached that goes off if he disengages the belt. We spot each other and he eagerly wheels over to us, with a smile and Merry Christmas wishes. Bending over, he picks up Scruffy and places him in his lap where Scruffy happily settles.
Due to divorce and the separation that it brings, it has been years since Hugh, Dylan and I have spent a Christmas together. I must say, that despite the current circumstances, it feels cozy and warm – like the good ole days. Conversation is filled with lots of laughter (the brain-damaged come up with some very funny comments at times!) and reminiscence. We dine, exchange gifts and take photos. We talk about love and Dylan tells me it makes him feel warm inside.
In addition to the residents and visitors, the presence of the staff is manifest. It is tangible that they regard each individual that they care for as a whole person, not just a diagnosis. I wonder what brings them to work on this special day, so I proceed to ask:
Priscilla, a Home Health Aide and Dylan’s favorite caregiver (he has a big crush on her), enjoys working on Christmas because, unlike most days, there is a lot of family visiting. Chris, an LVN, savors the happy atmosphere and enjoys dressing in red and green with the rest of the staff. Gabriela, an LVN for three years who has also worked at San Francisco General Hospital and City Jail #3, volunteered to work on Christmas because she loves holidays. Besides, her husband is at home cooking dinner! Merry, a CNA, also requested to work on Christmas because she enjoys sharing the occasion with residents and staff. Matty RN, and charge nurse of the day shift, has worked at Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for 22 years. Having observed Christmas with her husband and daughter the eve before, she believes she is doing extra service to her patients on this day.
Time has passed quickly and the duration of our visit has ended. Hugh and I exchange big hugs and lots of kisses with Dylan. Scruffy hops off his lap, now eager to depart. As Hugh and I leave, we agree that the visit is a bittersweet one. Thus is Christmas at Laguna Honda.
Addendum: I highly recommend the book GOD’S HOTEL: A DOCTOR, A HOSPITAL, AND A PILGRIMAGE TO THE HEART OF MEDICINE BY Victoria Sweet.