Everything around her was bright with new life in the spring of 1995 in Austin, Texas. But for Betty Flowers, then a 31 -year-old nursing assistant, life held no promise as she drove home from a job interview about the care of Jean Lester, an elderly woman disabled by multiple sclerosis (MS). Betty recently had separated from her husband. She now was raising three daughters on her own, one of them legally blind since birth, while she tried to complete her studies to become a RN.
Betty had given up on the world and good relationships and even people being fair. She felt the world was only about selfishness. But then Betty's beeper sounded as she was pulling into her driveway, not 4 miles from the Lester residence. It was Jean. "You're the first person that both my husband and I like," Jean said. "You had a unanimous vote - don't forget that, kiddo."
"Yes ma'am," was all that the soft-spoken Betty could reply. Battered by the world around her until she had all but forgotten her self-worth, Betty soon began to respond to Jean's mothering ways. "You're wonderful, " Jean told Betty on more than one occasion. "When people tell you to change, don't - they're just jealous," Jean told her. Betty found herself becoming emboldened by Jean's determination to speak her mind despite the fact that her disability kept her dependent on others. Betty and Jean's relationship grew and strengthened from a temporary 8:00 to 5:00 job into a deep, abiding friendship. Jean's resiliency and brassy humor despite her MS became a Ufe model to Betty, as did Jean's relationships with others, especially her husband Bill whom Betty not only loved but trusted implicitly.
Jean didn't trust a lot of people...trust had to be earned. But if she loved you, she loved you. She and Bill had a beautiful marriage - like a fairytale. Their love faced its greatest challenge in more than 30 years of marriage in 1995, when Bill was diagnosed with throat cancer and entered the hospital for treatment. Jean's husband and best friend slowly slipped away, and Jean turned increasingly to Betty for care beyond her physical needs.
When Bill died, Jean felt vulnerable. Jean knew Bill had trusted Betty, and she loved Betty. Betty gave Jean the security of knowing someone would stick with her. Betty gave her love, happy and peaceful days, arms when she needed hugging, strength when she wanted to be weak.
Betty began checking on Jean at all hours, off the clock, and on weekends. She would call on the rare days when she was away, right at the time when Jean would be having breakfast. "I didn't want to miss coffee with you," she'd say. "Oh, you're too damn nice, but I love you," Jean would answer. The two would have "slumber parties" watching Jean's favorite old movies, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Greatest Show on Earth, complete with the ice cream and popcorn Jean craved.
Betty also prided herself on providing the best health care possible for Jean. Her patience was blended with just the right amount of authority to get through difficult days when the physical problems caused by Jean's MS overwhelmed her fighting spirit. And heaven help those who cared for Jean in her absence if they didn't measure up to Betty's standards! Betty was the guard at her gate. If Betty felt anyone was giving Jean inadequate care, she would not stand for it. Jean entrusted Betty with her life.
Soon after Bill's death, Jean became bedridden and moved to a retirement home in Texas, keeping Betty as her full-time nurse. Betty took her first vacation in years, leaving Jean in the care of a visiting nursing agency. She returned to find Jean in the same clothes she had left her wearing 2 weeks prior, covered in sores from not being cared for properly. Betty was in an uproar. The nurse from the agency was promptly dismissed. Staff at the retirement home mistook Betty for Jean's daughter because of the way she took charge of the situation and demanded nothing less than flawless care for Jean.
In the winter of 1997, Jean contracted pneumonía after undergoing surgery and was transferred to the hospital's critical care unit. The nurses recognized the bond between Jean and Betty instantly and would draw the shades of Jean's room so the two could be together long past visiting hours. Betty and Jean had talked about death before, and Jean had only one request - she wanted Betty to be there. Betty did not disappoint her friend. Jean died in December 1997 under the faithful and loving watch of Betty and another friend, Jeff Austin.
Jean's quiet, generous nature extended beyond Betty and even continued after her death, when upon the reading of her will it was learned she had left more than $3 million to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. This money has been earmarked for research toward finding a cure for MS, the chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that affected Jean and more than one third of a million other Americans.
Looking back, Betty felt it was destiny that she and Jean met at such critical points in their lives. "The Lord knows what you need when you need it...He meant for our paths to cross," said Betty. Friends of Jean's have told Betty they believe she helped Jean make peace with herself and her MS and to lose some of her anger. These sentiments are gratifying to Betty, who has cared for the sick and elderly for more than 10 years, but no words meant as much to her as those spoken by Jean herself.
According to Betty, "...she gave me my self esteem back, my self-respect, taught me to believe in myself, to overcome fears. She believed in me when no one else did. You can't put a dollar value on that...love. Unconditional love."
Jean Lester's life is proof that people with MS, regardless of their level of disability, can and do have a profound effect on the world around them.
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