June 9, 2007

Then something falls into place and suddenly you understand

Posted in animal advocacy, companion animals at 1:41 pm by nevavegan

When I lived in NYC I volunteered with a program where we facilitated reading and writing with severely disabled adults in a public hospital. These were patients who had been in the hospital for a long time, some as long as 19 years. Because of their economic situation they had few other options for the long-term care they required. The patients included people who had been born with severe birth defects (like spina bifida high in the spine and severe) and were now adults requiring monitoring and continuing care. Others had multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease. Some had been paralyzed in car accidents or had had severe strokes.

When I started out with the program a volunteer who had been doing it longer than I had told me that sometimes communicating with people on ventilators or with paralysis was difficult. Their voices might be altered, or they might only be able to speak in whispers, or with an odd rhythm that might interfere with understanding. But she reassured me, something amazing happens when you work with someone for a while, suddenly something just happens to you, and then you understand every word. Before you might have wondered if they were always even speaking English or if they might be delirious, and then suddenly you start hearing and you know this amazing, intelligent person.

That’s what happened for me. I was working with a woman with Parkinson’s. She lived on a large open ward, permanently lying down in her bed. She had trouble even turning her head. At first I couldn’t understand anything and then all of sudden I was taking dictation for the memoirs of an amazing woman, who’d been an actress, a mother, a wife, who’d lived through and worked through incredible changes. Everything made sense, except of course this terrible disease.

I had not realized before this work how much we depend on non-verbal cues as we interpret spoken language. Words that sound similar can be distinguished by facial expressions and hand gestures, emphasis is added, and context, in ways we just pick up without even knowing it. When you’re talking to someone who cannot move her hands though, and has only limited facial expressions, you have to learn to look for more, the slightest flicker of an eye lid, or the direction of her gaze become the cues. Like I said, you begin to understand that the spirit and the mind inside this person are still active and involved and perceptive, even though the exterior does not represent those things.

Sometimes though I was disturbed by the reactions others had. Some of the nurses and orderlies wrote off attempts at communication by these individuals as “making noise” or “crying.” I can understand that they didn’t have the time to get extremely close with all the patients, but there seemed an underlying assumption that when the voice went away so did the mind. With my one friend, the one with Parkinson’s, I came in one day as she was being moved from a stretcher back into her bed. Once in the bed she seemed very agitated and was trying to communicate something, but whatever was wrong, even I couldn’t understand her words.

The nurse told me this was crying, as moving back into the bed was uncomfortable. But after the nurse left my friend became more upset, and was still trying to say something unsuccessfully. Her face became red and perspiration appeared. I went and got the nurse again, asking her to please check everything, something was wrong. She checked a couple things, told me again it was crying, and left. Since my friend was still not happy, I went and got an orderly and made the same request of him. He checked the bed, he checked the iv, he checked the nose tube to make sure it was still in place, and then the catheter, everything was ok so far. Then he checked the oxygen tank pushed to the back of the bed. It was shut off at the tank, that was the problem. So clearly my friend had been trying to communicate something vital, but because none of us could understand it, it was easier to simply dismiss it.

Life is full of these moments that force us to reconsider our definitions and prejudices. I was thinking about this also in regard to animals recently, that just because we don’t hear it doesn’t mean communication isn’t going on. Just because we don’t see or understand the intelligence behind another being’s actions, that doesn’t mean there isn’t intelligence present.

Recently the Washington Post ran a story about a study on dog intelligence that found dogs are much, much smarter than we ever gave them credit for (sorry requires registration). Another thing, deductive reasoning, that we used to feel was uniquely human has been found in another species.

Of course this isn’t much of a surprise to those of us who live with dogs. We all know our dogs can play dumb when it suits them, but with motivation they can learn complex tasks. Kyra learned to open the gates on our fence, much to our chagrin. She also learned to open the lever type door handles at the vet’s office. Good luck hiding food as well! For a while I wondered why I kept coming home and not being able to find Q anywhere in the house, then running around the neighborhood convinced she’d gotten outside somehow, only to have her show up later in the bedroom as if nothing had happened. Then I saw her open up the cabinet under the sink and go back into the gap in the wall there that led to a space between the side of the bathtub and the wall, and the cabinet door slammed shut behind her. (some cabinets are now child-proofed). I think that Kyra and Q learned to do these things by observing us and then trying it out themselves. Behind their fuzzy faces there was some thinking going on.

When I talk about the range of emotions my rescued animals express I’ve had people tell me I’m reading too much in. They’ll say, maybe they just learned to act a certain way to get food, you don’t know what they actually feel. That’s true. I don’t know for certain what they feel and they don’t have words to tell me exactly. I do believe though that much the same concept applies.

When you live every day with an animal who doesn’t communicate or express emotions in the same way you do, at first you’re just guessing, then something clicks and you know. It’s not anthropomorphizing, it’s not wishful thinking, it’s not being overly emotional, it’s just that suddenly you get past the differences in facial muscles, the different bones. You get past the fur and the different shape to the eyes, the fact that the flow of words goes only one way, and suddenly something falls into place and there really is communication and understanding.



  1. Vivacious Vegan said,

    Neva, this was a very thoughtful and intelligent analogy. I agree whole-heartedly.

  2. Canaduck said,

    You need to write a book and publish these things.

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