I read about her in the local paper. This was before the Internet had really hit the mainstream and cellphones only existed on Wall Street.
I then met her in person, a young African-American woman who had been in a car where several of the passengers were killed. She and her unborn child were the only survivors.
She came to rehab in her wheelchair for many weeks. She was not yet my patient, but this woman was radiant every time she came in.
Life's challenge did not seem to have affected her. Was she not sad to have lost the feelings of legs for the rest of her life? Was she not scarred that her premature daughter would not make it? Was she not heartbroken to have lost her friends?
She was zipping around in that wheelchair in the facility grinning, calling anyone to come and give her a hug.... Not a quick one; no she demanded a long bear hug. The kind of hug that after a certain amount of time you feel it in your back hug, the kind of hug where you realize you smell the shampoo used that day, the kind of hug that gave you time to feel the warmth of the other being.
One day, her primary physical therapist was out and she was put on my list. We of course started with a long hug. She complained about having gained weight and that her strength in her arms needed to be built up so she could lift her lower trunk better. "I need to lift weights," she said.
I asked her about her diet and she invited me to come and see the spinal cord housing place she was in, and see what poor choices she had at the cafeteria. So I did, that afternoon after work, I drove down to Newark and understood why Valarie was gaining weight. Only fried food was for dinner with white rolls and gravy. No salads. Just overcooked green beans were her greens.
We went up to her room. She had some pictures in her wall, unframed, and some letters on her nightstand. Her bed had only a thin blanket. The view out the window was another brick wall.
I looked her deep in the eyes and said “Those hugs means a lot to you, don't they.”
She looked up at me and said, "I tried eight, but that did not do it for me, and I tried 10 which was too much. The magic for me is nine. Nine hugs are what it takes for me to get through the day."
The next time I wrote my report I said, "I recommend patient stay for 45 minutes after rehab to perform upper body strengthening with weight in order to get transfer needs improved." What I really knew was that the hugs mattered most of all for her. And me.