Friday, September 10, 2004

Mother's big helper


College student refocused
career plans after parent's stroke

By John Johnston
Enquirer staff writer

At age 22, Janie Von Lehman is a student nurse with a lot to learn.

But an authoritative source - her 57-year-old mother, Mary Von Lehman - believes Janie already has certain essential skills down pat.

"She's going to be a wonderful nurse, because she's very compassionate and caring," Mary says.

Mary knows because she's not only Janie's mother, she's her patient.

To understand how that happened, look back to late August 2002. Janie was in Lexington, about to begin her second year as a special education major at the University of Kentucky. Her mother, a fourth-grade teacher, was preparing to start a new school year at St. Pius X Elementary in Edgewood.

But at home one day with Joe, her husband, Mary suffered a debilitating stroke. Paralyzed on her left side, she spent much of the rest of the year in a hospital.

Janie visited her there often, on weekends and weekdays. Worried about her mom, her grades suffered. Her heart was no longer in her studies.

"When she came home," Janie says of her mother, "I had to come home."

So when the school year ended, Janie moved back to her parents' Villa Hills home. With her father busy at work and her four siblings married with children, she became her mom's primary caretaker.

"I know anybody in the world in my position would do the same thing," Janie says. "I make sure she knows that she is not a burden in my life at all."

The time Janie spent with her ailing mother revealed her passion for caring for others.

She didn't return to UK. Instead, she enrolled in the nursing program at Thomas More College. She will graduate in two years.

She works part-time as a bank teller and as a nursing assistant at St. Elizabeth Hospital Medical Center in Edgewood. The latter is "the greatest job in the world," Janie says. "It's mostly wiping bottoms."

And how is that great?

"I do the basic care. Baths. I change their beds. I take them to the bathroom. I walk them when they need it. It's great, because you do the things people really need.

"I think that's the purpose of life: to impact other people's lives. To make them better people. Whether I have the power to do that, I'm not sure. I hope I do. I try to. I at least try to keep their bottoms clean at work, and take care of my mom at home."

Mary Von Lehman, who now walks slowly with a cane, appreciates her daughter's efforts. "I don't know what I would have done without her," she says.

Both their lives have changed. Janie, who was in a sorority and had many friends at UK, says she doesn't feel she has missed out. In fact, there's a dark cloud-with-silver-lining twist to this story.

Every Friday, Janie picked up her mother's medications at a local drug store. And every Friday, a pharmacy student named Eric Nordman, whom she's known casually since high school, was working there. They started dating. They will marry in November.

Marriage means Janie will redirect her energies a bit, but she'll continue to care for her mom. She sees her at the end of almost every day, at which time she washes her face, pulls back her bed sheets, fetches her pills and water, and kisses her good night.

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com

Everybody has a story worth telling. That's the theory, anyway. To test it, Tempo is throwing darts at the phone book. When a dart hits a name, a reporter dials the phone number and asks if someone in the home will be interviewed. Stories appear weekly.



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