The difference between health and wellness

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“Health is a state of body. Wellness is a state of mind.”

This statement was made relevant to me when I worked as a nurse’s aide at Villa Elena Convalescent Hospital in Norwalk.

I learned many life lessons there I don’t believe I could have learned anywhere else from people fragile in spirit and/or body.

When I began working at the hospital, I focused on the patient’s physical needs to the best of my abilities, which many times had to be done quickly in order for them to be ready for meals, showers and therapy sessions. I was told at my evaluation meeting with the head nurse that she was pleased with my efficiency. I wore that like a badge of honor. That is until one of my patient’s, Mr. Roberts, taught me an important lesson.

He was a man in his 90’s, with steel blue eyes, a strong jaw line, a full head of white hair and a dimple in the middle of his chin that reminded me of the iconic film actor Robert Mitchum.

I was informed by the nurse that Mr. Roberts was not eating regularly. She instructed me to make sure he complied, before his family came to visit. I walked in with my game face on and asked what his problem was. Mr. Roberts looked at me and stated that just because he was confined to his wheelchair, his mind was not.

He said, “You look like a reasonable person. Go look at the frames on the wall.”

I walked to the framed certificates. I was stunned to learn he’d been an assistant professor at M.I.T. before completing his Ph.D. at Harvard and awarded the distinction of Harvard University professor.

For the first time, I saw him as a person whose mind was intact, though his body was a contradiction. I turned to look at him.

“I’m sorry if I have offended you,” I told him. “While I’m on duty, I will go to the kitchen whenever you are ready for something to eat.” He smiled and asked that I wait until after visiting hours.

“Not a problem,” I replied with a smile of my own.

Maria, another person on my floor, taught me how to enjoy life regardless of the circumstances. She was a double amputee; she lost both her legs to diabetes. She had bright red hair and a personality to match. She was optimistic and effervescent.

Whenever the call for bingo in the dining area was announced, she’d put her wheelchair in gear and race to get her favorite table. I asked her how she managed to be so cheerful. She simply stated, “It’s a choice, honey!”

Those encounters forever changed how I cared for and interacted with the residents. I started to have real conversations with them; allowing me to learn from their life experiences and I think I’m a better person for the opportunity to listen to them as I attended to their physical well being.

Yolanda Adele is a member of the writing class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. It is held off-campus at the Norwalk Senior Center.

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