Never lose hope. Social placement in the Athens Paraplegic Centre

By Ilias Iliadis, September 2014

Every pupil in a Waldorf school undertakes a social work placement in class 11. Pupils decide whether they will go to a kindergarten, a hospital or an institution for people with disabilities. Ilias Iliadis decided to go to an Athens institution for stroke victims.

On the flight to Athens I began to wonder what awaited me, what my tasks would be and whether I would be able to help at all. I was a little uncertain whether I had not overestimated my abilities. It is not an easy task, after all, to look after people. It occurred to me that I could also have gone to a kindergarten but on the first day that I started work all my doubts disappeared.

I watched and learned the basic techniques. A few hours later I was allowed to take a woman from the treatment room back to her own room by  myself. She sat in a wheelchair. She had suffered a serious stroke and could no longer do many of the things we take for granted. She could neither walk nor speak, nor eat herself, she had lost the ability to write and could no longer remember her past. She had already been in this institution for some time and was treated every day by several doctors: from physiotherapy through logotherapy to the weekly health checks. Although she did her therapies every day, they did not really seem to achieve much success. I wondered whether this woman and her relatives had not given up hope a long time ago, but on the contrary: all the relatives, and the doctors as well, had a positive attitude and did everything in their power to help this woman.

Cheerfulness in the face of adversity

My tasks grew as the days passed. I was allowed to help with physiotherapy, with logotherapy and also grew to know the patients on a personal level. At the beginning I was worried about getting into a personal conversation with patients or their relatives because I was afraid that many of them would have a very negative outlook due to the fate that had befallen them. Yet I was positively surprised by everyone I met. They were convinced that they themselves or their family members would improve. They cracked jokes and there was laughter, no one complained although everyone knew very well that there were people among them who would spend the rest of their lives in a wheelchair!

It was not just the attitude of the family members that surprised me – I was also astonished by the attitude of the doctors who worked up to fifteen hours a day under difficult conditions and with very poor pay to make sure that every patient received treatment and was not abandoned. I liked working with these people and so it became my task to be there for them during this time, be it the granny in room 19b whom I distracted while she had blood taken or the family man in room 22c whom I kept company in the evening. I spent fifteen, sometimes sixteen hours there, chatted with people, woke them in the morning, accompanied them to their therapy appointments and brought them their meals if they could not make it to the dining room.

The moment when I realised how much any kind of help is needed and appreciated came when I took a woman to the lift in her wheelchair. I did not know her and only happened to be nearby with nothing to do at that particular moment so I helped her. She thanked me effusively and invited me for a coffee to the cafeteria. When I saw her again a few days later her daughter was visiting her. As I greeted her she said to her daughter: “That’s the young man I told you about.” I was very surprised how every helpful deed, be it ever so small, is appreciated.

I became used to the course of my day and felt at ease in the institution. I was warmly accepted and treated as part of the family. It was my second home. I started at seven in the morning and went home again at about ten at night but was happy to be there!

In the third week I got to know an eleven-year-old boy. He had suffered a stroke and had been there for several months. When his treatment started he was unable to do anything by himself. He could not speak properly either. When I met him he was able to walk and talk again but not in the same way as before. He was a very cheerful boy and enjoyed every day. He always had a smile on his face and was very friendly, even if he was a bit shy at the beginning and did not want to talk with me. In the course of the day I noticed that he was the symbol of the hopes of the whole institution. He was a little lonely, I found, because he was the only one there of his age. Most stroke victims are over 30.

Everyone in the institution knew him and everyone played with him, the doctors and nurses during their breaks, the patients whenever they were able. He had many friends, even if they were not of his own age! It was a particular treat for the boy when his neighbour in the next bed, an older man already a bit over 50, lent him his laptop which he could then use to play. It touched me deeply to see how everyone tried to make the boy’s stay as nice as possible even though they had their own problems to cope with.

That was a profound experience for me. These three weeks showed me how well off I am and that I do not really have any reason to complain.

I also learnt the importance of staying strong even when life is difficult and never to lose hope!

About the author: Ilias Iliadis is a class 12 pupil and attends the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School in Stuttgart.