Sunday, February 6, 2011

Great news that Kelly will go into space

Mark Kelly may not realize it yet, but he's a national figure for caregivers now. The news on Friday that he will return to space warmed my heart. I'm glad he's returning to work. It's one of the most difficult things a caregiver can do.

After the horrific shooting of his wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January, he added caregiver to his role as husband, father and astronaut.

His decision to return to work has been very public. After the initial chaos of the shooting, there were questions about whether he would command NASA's Endeavour's final flight in April.

Most spouses make this decision quietly after conversations with their spouses, families and often a human resources person at work. The HR guy tries to be gentle as he mentions, "You have no more paid time off."

A caregiver's love, care and support does not change, but they return to work after the initial traumatic brain injury, stroke, accident or disease that changed their life. A health care emergency has a way of creating a new normal (or abnormal) for families.

After my late husband Jimmy had a brain stem stroke, I was blessed to have a job that allowed me time off after the initial stroke. The time was valuable in helping me cope with the day to day changes. My employer's management and co-workers were supportive. After my husband moved out of ICU and into a rehab facility, I returned to work.

My husband wasn't happy. He wanted me to be there every day and I could not. Thanks to my job, I had the cash to drive to visit him in a city about 90 miles away. Not everyone can do what I did. I met women, who couldn't afford gas money to make the trip. They saw their spouses less frequently than me.

By being able to move his wife from Tucson to Houston, Kelly was able to be closer to work. I think that's great for both of them. She gets excellent rehabilitation services and care, while he returns to some of his everyday duties.

I'm a stranger to Mark Kelly and I applaud his decision. It's difficult to look at the big picture when a loved one's health is compromised. Brain injury recovery can take months to years for improvement. While I'm certain her husband will be missed at her bedside, he will return. Her therapy will continue in his absence and he'll be happy to be reunited with her.

Other strangers were not so thrilled. He was called selfish, detached and twisted to name a few.

There are differences between Kelly and some caregivers. He's most likely not worried about how to put gas in his car to visit her.

But, in many ways, he is like everyone else. He is a caregiver. He wants his wife to heal, but he can't do that for her. Her body will heal on its time. He can't change that.

In America, we like stories to end neatly — the boy gets the girl or the superhero saves the city from a bad guy. In health care, the path to the ending is long and sometimes messy.

As a former caregiver, I don't think Kelly should be criticized for incorporating work back into his schedule.

I know people say, "It's space. It's dangerous."

I say it's his job and he's doing what most caregivers do. He's returning to work. He's making contingency plans to take care of his wife. Let them live their new life in peace.

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