Karen Swartz, 3/18/2013

Current Occupation: Business Analyst in the health care industry

Former Occupation: Environmental Engineer, Laboratory Technician, Grocery Bagger, Camp Counselor, Postal Warehouse Package Sorter, Fast Food cashier, babysitter

Contact Information: By the time Karen Swartz was 18 years old she had lived in 10 different places all over the United States. She settled in Middletown, Connecticut which has been her home for 14 years, and she is planning to stay put. Karen is an active volunteer for arts and environmental organizations and she is a reporter for the online news blog The Middletown Eye, which is run completely by volunteers as a community service.



On the days when I am woken at 2:30 a.m. by the lights going on and off, the sound of the shower, and the scent of Ian’s deodorant wafting through the bedroom, I put a pillow over my head to block out the light as he gets dressed. He bends his lean frame over the bed to kiss me, and if I forgot to pack him a lunch before I went to sleep, I jump up out of bed and say “Wait! I need to make you a sandwich.” He always declines while gently pushing me back towards the small bedroom in our modest ranch house. I fear that he doesn’t eat enough since he dropped 40 pounds within the first few months of working at the grocery store where he walks ten miles every day in laps around the aisles for his normal duties.

Ian has a declining schedule; every day his ten-hour shift starts two hours earlier than the day before. The first day of his work week goes from 2 p.m. until midnight, and then his shift declines every day until the fifth day of his work week which goes from 4 a.m. until 2 p.m. He likes this schedule but to me it seems like he just works nonstop, and it’s hard to keep track of whether he’s coming or going. Once, I woke up when he was getting ready for work at 2:30 a.m., and I sighed “Oh you’re finally home honey, I’m so glad to see you.” I was crushed when he replied, “You’re confused, I’m just getting ready to leave. Go back to sleep.”

Ian passes very few other cars as he winds his way through the side streets, turns onto the four lane state road, and makes his way to the highway. Late at night, many of the traffic signals switch from the red-yellow-green cycle to constant blinking yellow, making the long commute a little easier. He’ll travel about twenty-five miles southwest to Connecticut’s shoreline to start his shift at the trendy market.

Ian was replacing an acoustic ceiling tile just inside the entrance to the store, in a vestibule area lined with bins of seasonal items and papered with sale signs and flyers. He placed the ladder, and in order to situate it under the tile, one side of the ladder’s base was in the doorway where customers enter and exit. Ian thought about this, and he waited a few beats until he felt certain that the presence of the ladder as an obstacle was triggering the motion sensor that prevents the automatic door from sliding shut. He climbed up and started pushing the old damaged tile up from the grid of metal framing. when the automatic door slid shut, hitting the ladder. The ladder shuddered and began to teeter on one edge. Ian realized that the ladder was about to fall out from under him and with quick reflexes he shoved his arms into the ceiling to grab hold of something and prevent himself from falling twelve feet down onto the hard concrete floor. While hanging there, he swung his legs to the side, and, with his feet, he grabbed the rocking ladder. He pulled it back underneath himself and steadied it, stepped back onto it, and withdrew his arms from within the cave of the ceiling. He had scraped his arm on a sharp metal edge of the suspension framing. Despite the searing pain, he climbed down before he looked at it. He took one look at the bloody mess on the inside elbow of his right arm, and to his coworker who had seen this happening and had rushed over, he said, “I need to go to the hospital right now.”

When I got the call saying only that Ian had hurt his arm and was at the hospital, I wanted to leave immediately. But first I had to shovel my car out of a foot of freshly fallen snow. It was a prelude of much shoveling to come. During that harsh winter of record snowfall, a job that Ian used to relish became mine.

I found my way to the hospital in the unfamiliar town of Milford. Still not knowing what had happened to Ian, I steeled myself for the possibilities. I bent down to embrace him and my strong, tall, muscular spouse was instantly pale, small, and frail. His coworker sat in a hard plastic square chair against the wall, fidgeting. She stood up and said “Um, I have to, um, get back to the store, so, now that you’re here, I mean, uh…” I nodded, and then she was gone.

Ian’s right arm extended straight out to the side, resting on a portable table next to the bed. When the doctor first removed the gauze and bandages, I stole a quick glance at the gory sight and tried to remain expressionless to hide my horror. A chunk of his arm about the size of a lemon hung by a flap of skin, hinged. Sinew and muscle exposed in a jumble of glistening pinks and reds. Ian refused to let me take pictures, saying he didn’t want me to show it to anyone and he didn’t want to look at it again later. The scar would be a permanent reminder enough. We have no pictures now, but I will never forget the gruesome sight.

I walked down the hall to the bathroom to take a break from the tension. It was a tiny room with the standard hospital facility fluorescent lighting and barrenness. However, it was far from sterile. A razor and a can of shaving cream perched on the small sink, and inside its surface was a generous coating of hair stubbles. The mirror was grimy, the trash can was full, and bits of shredded toilet paper dotted the floor. I was alarmed and I wondered if the people caring for my overworked, sleep-deprived spouse were themselves in the same situation, spending so much time in their workplace that they left personal toiletries there.

I know instinctively that Ian’s pushing himself to the limit caught up with him, but his perspective is different. When we were first dating, I puzzled over his energy level on so little sleep, and he said simply, “I like being awake.” He is unwilling to be wholly consumed by the demands of his job, so he pushes the limits of how much he can stay awake and do things he wants to do. He is so accustomed to functioning in a general state of exhaustion that he doesn’t recognize his subtle slowness. Other people do. A few weeks before this accident, a friend told me that she ran into Ian and that “he did not look well.” He insisted that he was well rested when he positioned the ladder, but tiredness is embedded in his face.

This isn’t the first incident he’s had. A forklift nearly mangled his foot. Though he escaped with nothing more than heavy bruising, it was so hideous that it shocked me, but Ian shrugged it off, a total dismissal never spoken of again. Another time he almost fell unconscious while working inside a walk-in freezer that was being temporarily cooled by dry ice due to a power outage. Dry ice should never be used in unventilated places because the carbon dioxide gas it emits replaces the oxygen in the air. Shortly after Ian entered the cooler room, he became dizzy and lightheaded, his heart was racing, and he was having trouble breathing. He thought he was having a heart attack and he opened the heavy insulated door and sat down outside for a few minutes to rest. He went back in, (he went back in!) and within seconds he was gasping for breath. He was able to extricate himself probably seconds before he would have passed out. I shuddered when he told me this, and even though there was no need for dry ice anymore, my stomach sank with fear every day when he left for work for the next six months.

“Don’t go in the cooler!” I’d demand. “Don’t worry,” he said sweetly, his voice reflecting concern for me, but nonchalance for his own safety.

Back at Milford Hospital, the doctor took a couple hours to stitch up his arm with four layers of sixteen stitches each. Other than asking me to bring him water, Ian was still and silent. When we left, he insisted that I take him back to his car so he could drive it home. I tried to convince him to leave the car, that I and a friend would go back and pick it up the next day. His stubbornness and desire for control prevailed over my logic and concern.

At his one follow-up appointment, Ian laughed and joked around with the nurse. The doctor glanced at the scar and explained the warning signs for infection. No physical therapy or treatment was recommended, and he was advised it would take one year to heal fully and before he’d know if there was any permanent nerve damage. Ian decided not to make a worker’s compensation claim. His grip remains weak and there are certain motions he can’t perform, so technically, he is partially disabled, but he thinks that this label is nonsense and that he is lucky he didn’t fall off the ladder and get hurt worse. We had a disagreement about this. I’d had my own share of work injuries and I knew how this felt. I took the position that he was legitimately hurt in an accident and should claim what help he is entitled to. I bitterly resolved to submit the forms for him that I thought he should be submitting for himself. I printed out the State of Connecticut Form 30-C and other instructions and documents and placed them in a manilla folder in a prominent place on the speckled kitchen counter.


Two years later, Ian still has some occasional numbness in his arm; he accepts this without emotion in his pure stoic New Englander fashion. The folder that I filled with information from the State Workers Compensation Commission was shoved into the back of the file cabinet. Several times in the months after the accident, I picked up the folder and paged through its contents, and then I set it back down again. I felt my stress level rising just thinking about the bureaucracy and paperwork. I understood why he didn’t want to make any claims for disability compensation.

Back at work, he used his experience as an opportunity to talk to the corporate Human Resources representative about how the return-to-work process might be made more efficient in the future. He continues to press on, ambitious and determined. It’s 2:30 in the morning on a recent weekday when the alarm buzzes. Then at 3 a.m., I call out “Don’t forget your sandwich!” This is all I can offer him as he begins another long day.


2 comments on “Karen Swartz, 3/18/2013
  1. Susan says:

    Even a “trendy market” can be a dangerous place to work! Well written!

  2. Maria Weinberger says:

    This is a very well-written piece, and beautifully describes how many people face their day-to-day lives: the loving, caring spouse who worries for her husband as he makes way through the work hours with inadequate sleep and sometimes dangerous assignments; the husband, a proud and taciturn “New Englander” who urges his wife to continues to sleep even as he neglects his own need for rest, and is so committed to his job that he declines workers’ compensation coverage for and injury sustained on the job, and instead cares about making the return to work for employees in similar circumstances easier.
    Grateful that the author shared this story with me, and with other readers.

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