Fijians’ culture of compassion
Brad Dreyer's day begins in Glen Ellen at 8:30 each morning with the arrival of Bentley Wan.
For the rest of the day, the patient man with an easy grin will be Dreyer's nurse, physical therapist, driver, valet and best friend.
Dreyer, 26, has limited use and control of his hands and legs after suffering a traumatic brain injury five years ago when he was struck by a hit-and-run motorcyclist while riding his skateboard. It will take Wan nearly three hours to ready Dreyer for a chiropractic appointment in the early afternoon.
Wan is careful to skip no step in this meticulous and unhurried process. He prepares the morning's nourishment and medications, delivered through a feeding tube, and discreetly disposes of the waste from the previous night.
Wan, 47, is one of hundreds of Fijians who live in Sonoma County and are in-home caregivers to people most in need, from the severely disabled to those in hospice care and nearing death. While some come to the job after realizing how hard it is to get work in the United States, there are values in their Fijian culture that make them particularly suited to caring for others.
Wan gently massages Dreyer's facial muscles with the hope that eventually this well-loved child from a close-knit family, a lively and helpful kid who played drums and soccer and was a pirate in his high school production of 'The Pirates of Penzance,' will smile again.
'OK, buddy. Start smiling, man,' he cajoles.
Wan will do anything it might take to provoke those muscles to express happiness — dancing, making a funny face, telling jokes. The smile hasn't happened yet. 'I end up laughing at myself,' he conceded. But even after 2½ years of caring for Dreyer with the same tender care he would his own son, Wan keeps the faith.
'Get your tongue to work, that way you start eating and talking. Push up Brad, push up,' Wan says as he brushes Dreyer's teeth, gums and tongue. There is no noticeable response, but Wan keeps coaching him.
An uplifting drumbeat of Christian motivational affirmations about healing and wellness pours out of a laptop Wan has set up in Dreyer's room. There's a Batman poster on the ceiling, a Sonoma Valley High School class of 2006 photo and other reminders of an old life that Brad's mother, Mary Kate Dreyer, still hopes he might, through intensive therapy from professionals and committed caregivers like Wan, reclaim in at least some small measure.
'I want to see you talk on my watch, before I leave this place,' Wan declares sternly, looking into the still-handsome face of Dreyer, whose eyes, behind glasses, don't appear to be focused.
By definition, Wan is a caregiver. But he is more like a close uncle, best friend and extension of Dreyer himself, intuiting his needs, desires and discomforts since he can't speak for himself. By Wan's estimate, Dreyer may understand only 10 words.
Still, Wan reads to him, anything from sports stories in the newspaper to books he knows his sons of similar age would like. He takes Dreyer for wheelchair walks in the neighborhood park, plays his favorite old TV shows and helps with home physical therapy.
'I talk to him as I would talk to my son. I get mad at him. I'm joyful with him. I make silly jokes. I just want to believe he's enjoying it,' Wan says.
He maintains with understatement that 'the only qualification you need for this job is compassion.' Mary Kate Dreyer does not agree.
'I could not have Brad at home without Bentley. You are a gift from heaven, Mr. Wan,' she calls to him as Bentley readies Dreyer for his wheelchair.
After earning an MBA, Wan taught high school math and economics, managed a bank for 11 years and oversaw the Fijian branch of an Australian government agency serving underdeveloped South Pacific communities, similar to the Peace Corps.
This is not the job he envisioned when he came to the U.S. with his wife, Dee, in 2009 after winning a green-card lottery that allowed him to emigrate. Disenchanted with what they believed was government corruption following a series of military coups in Fiji, the couple decided to start over in the U.S., hoping to provide better opportunities for their three sons, ages 19, 21 and 24.
They joined a growing community of expatriate Fijians in Sonoma County that Dr. Narayan Raju, the honorary consul for Fiji in San Francisco, estimates at about 600. Some within the local Fijian community believe they could number 1,000 or more, and an extraordinarily high percentage of them, by some estimates as much as 90 percent, are or have been caregivers.
Eritrean, Filipino and some Latino immigrants also have taken to caregiving, but the Fijians have claimed it both as a family business and a religious calling. Most have a strong Christian faith, primarily Methodist and evangelical, and call upon that as motivation to attend to others.