When I first learned that Barry Corbet was recovering in a nursing home following shoulder surgery in 2003, the opportunist in me hoped he would write about his experience. Later, when he had moved back to his Lookout Mountain Road home in Golden, Colo., he told me he had some good material that he was massaging. “Any chance I could run it in the magazine?” I asked. To Barry, “the magazine” could only mean the one he had guided and breathed life and spirit into for so many years.
“I think I’d like to try giving the mainstream market a shot,” he said, “but we’ll see what happens.”
I can’t say I was surprised or disappointed. New Mobility was fortunate to have run a few first-rate pieces by Barry during his “retirement” years, and I was grateful for anything he wanted to share with our readers. I have to admit that deep down I hoped that he would reach a larger audience. It would be good for all of us.
And it is. So good. And in more ways than anyone could have predicted. Barry’s final narrative, Embedded, has been published in the January-February 2007 AARP Magazine two years after he died of cancer, and it will be read by more readers than any other magazine could have reached.
His children, Jonathan, Jennifer and Mike, asked Barry’s good friend and fellow writer, Harriet McBryde Johnson, if she would market the manuscript, hoping it would find a mainstream audience. Harriet had known about the manuscript since Barry was first working on it in the nursing home. “He was his own harshest critic,” she says. “I told him I thought it would go to a major magazine, and he was skeptical, but interested. His feeling was that it needed more work.” He worked on the story up until the time he was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2004, then put it away.
After Barry’s life had been celebrated by family and friends, Johnson made a list of possible markets, and AARP, while on the list, was thought to be a longshot. “It seemed very different from what they usually publish, and you usually try to pitch to people who publish similar things.” Eventually, she sent the manuscript to Nancy Graham, AARP Magazine’s deputy editor, who happened to be a family acquaintance.
“I was blown away by it,” says Graham. “I have family in Charleston and I’ve known Harriet Johnson for many years, so right away she’s a credible source. We’d published an excerpt from her book [Too Late to Die Young], so if she thinks something is good, it probably is good. But I also went into it knowing that it could be difficult subject matter.”
Graham knew from experience that nursing home articles could be depressing, negative, and intense, not exactly what readers seek out, and also, who was this unknown author? “You just don’t know,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about Barry Corbet. So when I read it, I couldn’t believe how good it was.”
What Graham discovered was what readers of New Mobility have known for more than 15 years. Barry could write about difficult topics in a way that was not only enlightening and provocative, but entertaining. “It was really funny in parts, and it was very straightforward. It didn’t pull any punches and was just a beautiful read,” says Graham. “That’s so unusual with topics that are tough topics.”
Graham felt she had to have independent confirmation, so she sent the manuscript to story editor Karen Reyes. Reyes was very busy, just minutes away from an important meeting she had to attend. “I was thinking I would just look at the first paragraph and save it and read it later, after all the day’s hassle was over,” says Reyes. “I started reading and I couldn’t stop reading it. Once you read that first paragraph, you’re in it.”
Reyes had been a long-term care ombudsman for three years in California and was familiar with nursing home issues. “It is such a perfect snapshot of real nursing home living. He was absolutely on target.”
As enthusiastic as Graham and Reyes were, they were aware of a major problem. The longest stories AARP had ever run were about 3500 words, which, Reyes says, was “pushing the envelope.” Barry had written more than 5,000 words. In the magazine business, editorial pages are tightly budgeted, and departures from business-as-usual are extremely rare. But “Embedded” succeeded in winning over the art department as well, and Reyes suggested to the art director that they preserve as much of the original manuscript as possible by minimizing illustrations and running the story with pullquotes, to “let the words do the work.”
It happened so fast it stunned me,” begins the story. “At the age of 67, after one week in a hospital, I found myself in a nursing home.” What follows is a realistic, moving, fact-based first-person narrative that initially draws the reader in to Barry’s personal dilemma — how to maximize his recovery from shoulder surgery while avoiding the usual institution-borne complications: UTIs, skin problems, mixed-up meds, creeping depression, and more. The focus then broadens to reveal a unique cast of characters who all have one thing in common — they’d all rather be almost anyplace else in the world.
The characters are real of course, but their names have been changed. Still, anyone who has ever visited a nursing home recognizes the tragicomic play of freedom versus restraint, complicated by institutional structure and expectation. Emma is subdued by Haldol and “wired for altitude” — when she stands, an alarm alerts nursing home aides to “persuade” her to sit. Emma especially captures our attention and our hearts, and her circumstances provide Barry with an opportunity to play detective/advocate:
* * *
Outside my room Emma dozes. Finally she starts to wheel into my room. “Emma,” I say, “do you have the wrong room?” She recognizes me and backs out with the most comical “silly me” gesture imaginable. Her grace has made it a charmed communication. Sedation robs grace. Soon she’s asleep in her wheelchair, then awake again, saying that her back hurts. She calls for someone to take her to her room, her voice weak and desperate. She asks a passing aide. “Not now,” the aide says, with no reason, no indication of when.
There is coercion here, both subtle and obvious. Even in the rehab wing several people are kept in physical restraints. There are no ropes or handcuffs; for frail people in wheelchairs an immovable lap tray is restraint enough. Combined with the infernal alarms, these restraints are effective and very public. Chemical restraints (drugs) are also common. Emma’s not nodding at the front desk for her health. She’s there for the convenience of the staff. Henry nods right next to her.
In my private room I pull up the Medicare rules on the Internet. I learn that nursing home residents are guaranteed “the right to be free from seclusion and physical restraints, as well as chemical restraints with psychoactive drugs, for any reason other than the treatment of a medical condition.” But what is a medical condition? Mending bones would seem to qualify. Does disorientation? Pure orneriness? As always, the devil is in the details.
In the broader sense, though, restraint is a constant condition for all of us here. It’s not force majeure, not even staff obstinacy; it’s conditioning, habit, insistent reminding that this is how we do things. We know how things go smoothly. Smoothness is greatly admired here. But when smooth operation is the paramount goal, subjugation follows. It’s built into the institutional model.
* * *
Throughout the story we are privileged to witness the everyday indignities and injustices of nursing home reality up close, yet from a comfortable distance, and Barry is our “embedded” journalist “with a different kind of war to report.” In the end, even though our undercover reporter is guided by his own gentle nature and is careful not to assign blame to any individual, there can only be one conclusion: “It shouldn’t happen to anybody.”
After seven weeks, Barry was released and went home, where he had to find and pay for helpers out of his own pocket. In the story, as in life, that is what ultimately sets him apart — he knew he was there temporarily. But he leaves us with questions he wants us to consider: “What if I had to spend the rest of my life there?” And “If Medicare and Medicaid were willing to spend more on in-home help, wouldn’t it keep us more active in the world, prevent dependency, and save the taxpayers money?”
Barry’s daughter, Jennifer, scouted several nursing homes in advance and left the choosing to Barry. Ironically, his choice had little to do with health care and much to do with setting and opportunity, specifically a view of the mountains and a private computer hook-up, both vital links to the outside world. “He said that really saved him,” says Jennifer. “It was very easy to roll outside and go down to where the bike paths were. Often on the weekends we’d go down there, my family, and sometimes my brother Jon and his family would come on the weekends. Barry was able to operate his power chair and we could get on these paths and go right to this patch of beautiful fall color. We’d often go far, like a couple of miles, and sometimes the nursing home would call me because we would exceed our ‘time leash.'”
No doubt the mountain view was critical to Barry’s mental and emotional state. Muffy Moore, Barry’s ex-wife, lifelong friend and mother of his children, saw in him a “graceful forbearance” during his nursing home stay, which she attributed to his “getting outside in the sunshine and looking at the mountains. It’s all he ever wanted to do — be in the mountains all his life. It helped him keep a balance of mind.”
But Harriet Johnson worried that, once home, Barry might “bounce back in,” or not be able to return home as planned. She has seen it happen to others. “They might develop some medical complication, like a sore or infection, to delay discharge. Then depression hits and the difficult task of coordinating in-home care becomes overwhelming and seems impossible. It starts to seem impossible to family also. They propose combining households. A person doesn’t want to be dependent on [his or her] children who are raising their own children. No other solution seems economically viable. Their medical condition deteriorates further. A person gets in the habit of conforming to the nursing home routine …”
Tom Hornbein, longtime friend who made the historic Everest climb alongside Barry, was surprised to be able to spend “an uncommonly lovely day” with him as they sat outside the nursing home and enjoyed a view of the mountains and fresh air. To him, Barry seemed “mismatched” with most of the other residents, too vital, too “alive.”
Johnson says this is a common reaction: “If we haven’t been close to it,” she says, “we tend to regard the people in nursing homes as kind of fundamentally different from the rest of us.” But she feels that after seven weeks, Barry began to see that even those who are strongest and most determined can find themselves without outside options. “While he was there I think it was beginning to dawn on him that that is how it happens, and he developed more of a sense of ‘we-ness’ with people who are in nursing homes.”
For those who knew Barry, it should not be surprising that “Embedded” presents issues with a gentle touch and without preaching. Credit is given where due, especially to the nurses and aides who do the best they can in difficult circumstances. In the end, he even concludes that for this brief period in his life, “this place has given me what I needed.”
Nancy Graham thinks the story may be an award-winning journalistic work, and everyone associated with it has high hopes that it will enlighten the public on the nursing home issue. “Maybe when the movement comes along at a political forum or whatever,” says Johnson, “and we say, ‘do you support Money Follows the Person,’ this might make people say, ‘Oh yeah, we waste all that money locking people up.’ I think this will be read by lots and lots of people who would not necessarily be exposed to the issue this way.”
Truly important writers shine a light on difficult topics and challenge us to continue working for positive change in their absence. Barry’s final story does just that. “What if I had to live, as so many do,” he writes, “without any hope of release?”