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.