“I was raised in a Catholic family in Cali, Colombia. I admired the nuns and their dedication and at one time I wanted to be a nun, but I didn’t pursue it.”
Strong church and family influences fueled her desire to help people. She graduated from Universidad del Valle in Cali with a master’s degree in social work and has spent twenty-one years as a social worker, most recently in nursing homes.
Working with children and youth first
“Cali is a city of 2.5 million people with a lot of social and economic problems. After university, I worked in Cali for twelve years with children and youth in city agencies and community organizations. I didn’t want to work with elderly people because I thought it would be depressing.”
In 1999 she moved to the United States, had her university degree validated, and was designated a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Despite her initial reluctance to work with the elderly, she has been employed in nursing homes for eight years and is enriched by her interactions with residents, caregivers, and families. She currently works at a long term/skilled care facility in Springfield, Missouri.
“A co-worker and I interview each new resident. We evaluate their psychological, physical, and social health to develop a personalized care plan with other team professionals.”
A resident with dementia was a veteran whose nightmares of his war experiences often jolted him from sleep. His nearly nonstop talking was mostly unintelligible. On one occasion, he was sitting in the hall and mumbling.
“I wanted to hear what he was saying, so I went to his side. He reached for me and said, ‘Hold my hand, hold my hand, lady! Let’s get to the highway!’ It appeared he was having a flashback and wanted to take us to a safe place. Later, I thought if I wrote something it would help me see beyond his dementia and maybe understand him better.”
Putting off writing
For two years Doris suppressed the urge to write, convinced she was not a writer. The idea of writing returned intermittently, but she never acted on it until last year when she read the blog of a writer.
“I sent her an email and was thrilled she wrote back with encouragement and tips. She told me I didn’t have to be ‘a writer;’ to just write, and that if God wants me to write I will be able to do it.”
She started a blog. Her first story was about why she became a social worker. Then, she wrote about some of her nursing home residents, using only first names, changing the names and genders, and making some characters composites. The stories are poignant vignettes of the lives of nursing home residents. Her U.S.- born husband checks her spelling and grammar.
Her hundreds of blog followers include professional writers, would-be writers, and non-writers who are moved by her sensitivity that brings new levels of compassion to the craft of storytelling. She says her writing is therapy for her and she hopes it helps others.
“I try to be inspirational and to see past the physical challenges of the residents.”
Flash nonfiction leads to her book
She didn’t realize her blog stories were flash nonfiction, often defined as fifty to 1,000 words; she just wrote what she felt it took to tell the stories. Then she came across a blog of fifty-word stories.
“My jaw dropped. I was amazed the stories were so complete and compelling. I accepted the challenge of the blogger to write one fifty-word story per day for a month, starting the title of each story with a different letter of the alphabet, until I finished twenty-six stories. It was so satisfying.”
Her husband encouraged her to publish the stories in a book. The result was Home Sweet Nursing Home: An A to Z Collection of 50-word Stories on Aging and Healthcare, published this year. It is moving and insightful. She deftly weaves beginning, middle, and ending into her stories, often obtaining drama with an unlikely hero and villain.
Doris is doing what many professionals advise new writers: write about what you know.
Doris may be reached at Hold My Hand, A Social Worker’s Blog.
Photo courtesy Doris Plaster.
What have been your experiences with flash nonfiction? How has that format helped your writing?