Caregiver Awareness,  SCI Awareness,  Wheelie True Stories

Caregiver Feature: Sarah and Michael

The Oxford definition of caregiver is “a family member or paid helper who regularly looks after a child, or a sick, elderly or disabled person.” Not only is this definition old and outdated, but it is seriously lacking perspective. A lot of the time a family member, partner or spouse may fall into the position of caregiver after a life changing accident, injury or illness; which is the case for a lot of inter-abled relationships. But it’s not the case for all of them. Sometimes, a person chooses this life knowing exactly what they are getting into. In other cases we end up with a duo like Sarah and Michael; not romantically involved, but family all the same. We wanted to highlight their unique bond, not only because you can’t help but love these two, but because Sarah’s insight into what it means to truly be a caregiver is both eye opening and heartwarming.

Who are you and what made you want to become a caregiver? 

Hello, I’m Sarah and I’m a 34 year old Health Care Assistant. I went to Vancouver Career College and graduated with honours on my 30th birthday. I worked in providing senior’s homecare, prior to working for Michael Niculeac. Now, I’m 100% a Michael fan! He is 37 and has a form of Muscular Dystrophy known as Friedreich’s Ataxia. 

My decision to be a caregiver was brewing inside of me for a looooong time before all of this though. Let’s start at the beginning. 

My childhood was filled with doctor appointments galore! At 5 months old I had the majority of one kidney removed, due to cysts and an infection and some spare parts. When I was 7 the doctors noticed my rib cage stuck out further on one side than the other, and a few x-rays later was diagnosed with scoliosis. My years from 9-15 were spent in back-braces. This required two yearly visits to a city that was an eight hour drive from home, where x-rays were taken and new braces were made as I grew. At 14 I had a fun time with some kidney stones that wouldn’t pass. By 17 my scoliosis was a double 90/60 degree curve. My spine was just trying to be my initial LoL. That’s when they decided to operate and put rods in my back to straighten it as much as they could. I recovered from that and turned 18 and the doctor visits ended!

I don’t remember much of the medical side of any of these things, other than what my parents tell me, but I do remember how the doctors treated me and my family. I remember how these visits and time in their care made me feel. The doctor we drove eight hours to see for my spine, wasn’t because there weren’t doctors closer, but because THIS one was funny, kind, and felt like family. He had our trust. I remember the nurse singing me to sleep when I was in pain after spinal surgery. It didn’t matter that I was 17, I felt small and 100% dependent on everyone else and reverted to needing a mother-like figure in that moment. She sang “You are my sunshine” until I fell asleep. 

This is why I wanted to become a caregiver. My voice isn’t that beautiful, but I’ll sing, I’ll hold, I’ll comfort, and I’ll be family to anyone in need of that.

For me, I wanted the ability to give great care, but also to give that feeling to my clients, that they are in trusted hands that care about them and their families.

Tell us a little bit about how you and Michael started working together and the start of your friendship. 

Awww Michael. Well let me tell you how that started! I was working with a friend of his, providing short term care for a few weeks. When that time ended, I joined her for her birthday and pictures of us got out on Facebook. Michael saw me and sent me a friend request. Seeing this young handsome fella, I thought, “Is he adding me to hit on me?” How vain was I!? I asked our mutual friend what she thought his intentions were, and she said, “He’s probably looking for a care aide”. Sheepishly, swallowing my pride, I replied, “Oh of course”. I messaged Michael and asked if he was looking for a care aide or a friend and he replied, both! I told him I got into this career, because I love people and not just the job, so friendship would be inevitable. Then, a few weeks later, I started what would become the most rewarding career, with the best boss-man and someone who would become my friend like-a-brother! January 1, 2017, was my start date, and the beginning of it all.

When being a caregiver, what boundaries are put into place and how do you navigate your role? 

As a caregiver, boundaries are 100% important, as with any career where you are working with others who are dependent on you or vulnerable. It’s the only way to avoid stress on both parties and misconduct. You are in a role where your highest priority is someone else’s life, and that position must never be taken for granted, be abused, or misguided. 

To me, one of the biggest things is balance between being “over-involved” or “under-involved”, in order to stay helpful. When you are a caregiver, it can be hard not to care TOO much, where you’re getting too involved, to the point of taking over by trying to fix things that aren’t in your control. At the same time, if you don’t do your self-care, you can start to care less, where now you’re just are too tired to go the extra mile. You need to know how to find your balance, and how to care for yourself too, so you can be the best version of yourself for your client.

My career as a caregiver has always been about staying professional, but also, addressing my client how they feel most comfortable. For example, in school we learned to NEVER address someone as “dude”, but with Michael that’s different! He’s my older brother’s age and so with his permission, he’s dude, bro, buddy, Miquel, and a million other names. I say, always keep it professional, unless guided directly by your client otherwise.

Another example of profession vs clients request; I thought I’d be wearing scrubs my whole career, but with Michael, we go out looking like buddies. Not “a worker and her client”. Athletic wear, and of course, Jordan shoes for me now 😉 After all, I have to keep up with Michael’s fashion!

Tell us about the dynamic of your working relationship and how you both maintain a healthy work/friendship. 

Friendship with Michael was unavoidable! Anyone who knows Michael, loves him! They tell you in school though, not to build a friendship with your client. That this type of relationship could cause you to share things about your life with them that adds to their own worries. This was hard for me in the beginning, because I’m relational! In real life, as years pass, friendship happens. For me, it is just important that caregivers don’t cross the line, or play into drama in their client/friendships. If you’re going to be friends with your client, it better be the most important friendship in your life to maintain and fix when broken. I say, handle with care! The health of your client is the most important thing, and them not being stressed about some little friendship issue or your life drama, better be of utmost importance to you. None of that “we had a disagreement, so I’m not coming into work” garbage! Also, it’s so important to maintain a healthy level of respect. This is a job and they are your boss and that should always come first. Don’t use your friendship to be pulling strings and trying to get extras. Never let your friendship make you think you can use this person for your benefit. That’s not caregiving and sometimes you gotta go back to professionalism to remember why you’re here. 

Michael and I have always kept it light-hearted, quick to forgive any little tiffs (which are few and far between), and are each other’s biggest cheerleaders. Most days, as a caregiver, that’s what you are, a cheerleader, and that’s important! If there are ever days I feel he’s been my cheerleader for too long, I check myself. Am I bringing too much of my own heavy days into work? I’m reminded that I’m here to put a smile on HIS face…and that always brings a smile to mine. That’s how caregiving works for me.

As a caregiver do you take time to do any self care? Is that important and what does that look like for you? 

Self care as a caregiver of any kind, whether you’re working for a client or you’re a mother or father, is very important. You can’t give from an empty jar. This is a personal thing for everyone to figure out for themselves. What is your limit, and once you’ve reached that limit, what brings you back to your good place? When I started my career as a caregiver I was so passionate and grateful to be working in my field, that I could not get enough! I was overeager and a “yes man” to any offer where there was work to help someone’s need. I continue to learn what my limit is, and that’s just something that takes time. You will never hear me say, though, that, Michael burns me out. Let’s be honest, we all need days off no matter what our job is, not just caregivers. Heck, we even need a break from our babies, our spouses or our friends sometimes. I just want to make something very clear. Never EVER look at the person you’re caring for and tell them, I need time off, I’m burnt out because of YOU. Yes this happens, and it’s SO wrong. I’ve had clients not eat because they thought assisting them with eating was too much work because of a comment to them like this. It’s called life and we all need a break sometimes.

I like to have down days, where I wake up to no alarm, and watch movies like “Still Alive” or “The Upside” on my days off lol.

What has working with Michael taught you? 

Working with Michael has taught me so many things. I’ve learned the importance of wheelchair accessibility lol! Of making eye contact and talking with the person in the wheelchair, rather than through their caregiver. I’ve learned that people with disabilities love doing things we all love doing, so invite them along, because there’s always some creative way to make it work for them. I’ve learned how rare it is for people to ask someone to hang out just because they are disabled, and that’s sad. I’ve learned everything about 90’s rap, and that Michael only loves music from highschool lol.

I’ve learned that you can love someone you work for and not hate Mondays.

Michael has taught me how to be positive and “roll” with it, through every single thing he’s had to give up due to his disability. He motivates me to go to the gym, because if he can, we all can, and it’s not about how much you lift, it’s about showing up. He’s also taught me that humor with care is awesome for everyone. Nothing is embarrassing if you can laugh through it. We have so many things we say to each other, and one of my personal favorites is, “It’s my first day”, when I goof up. Having fun through caregiving, is the best way and my only way.

Thanks for reading my blab and I hope you love caregiving and Mr Michael just a little more because of it. He’s one heck of a dude!

Pushing on…

Sarah

Note from Sam & Chelsea: Please know that Wheel Love is a community for everyone. We aren't just wives, girlfriends, husbands and boyfriends. We are parents, siblings, health care workers, friends, acquaintances, children and anyone who just wants to learn more and get involved. We love having you all on this journey with us and hope that you will reach out if you ever have any questions. If we don't have the answer, we will find you someone who does. And if you just want to chat, we're pretty good at that, too.

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