How perception of the patient transformed in a single visit

Have you ever had a situation where your perception of some event or entity changed dramatically in an instant?

I specifically remember an instance of this happening to me while working as a junior medical student in a family practice clinic.

It was a typical day and I was doing the typical thing that you’re supposed to do as a medical student — feign interest in the clinic’s goings on and try not to get in the way.

It had been one patient after another until eventually we walked into the room of an elderly female patient and her husband.

The patient was close to 80-years-old and wheelchair bound.  Her limbs were contracted with some neuromuscular disease, and she sat tilted to the side with her mouth agape, drooling.

It was a pitiful sight.

What was unusual was the spry energy of her spouse.  He was alert, mentally sharp, even loquacious.  He was equal to his feeble wife in age, but in far better health.  I was surprised because so often it is the other way around.  We men tend to go downhill much more quickly than women, so usually it’s a feeble husband being cared for by his healthy wife.

I must confess, I felt sorry for this husband.

Even though he seemed to be in good spirits — and during the course of our visit took care to wipe the drool off his wife’s chin so it didn’t stain her shirt — I could imagine that it was a difficult situation.  His wife obviously needed much care, and by her records I could see she still lived at home with him.

I was preoccupied with this line of thinking when the resident physician I was working with received a page and stepped into the hall to answer it, leaving me sitting alone in the clinic exam room with this patient and her husband.

It was a bit awkward.

At this point in my medical training I was basically an observer, so there was nothing I could contribute to the patient’s medical care on my own.  With my resident out in the hall, the clinic visit had come to a halt, and the patient’s husband and I were left sitting together in the presence of his drooling, and occasionally moaning, wife with nothing more to do than make polite small talk.

However, I didn’t really know what to say.

I remember formulating in my mind some clichéd phrase to say in an attempt to demonstrate that I recognized the difficulty of his situation.  Just as I opened my mouth to speak it, though, his voice broke the awkwardness.

“She’s my fishing buddy, you know,” he said.

“I’m sorry?” I asked, not really sure what he was getting at.

“She’s my fishing buddy. Me and her have fished all over,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yep.  We used to set trot lines in the lake over there and get up every morning to check them,” he replied, “We’ve been married over fifty years.”

I stared at this man.

His eyes were sparkling, his mouth wide in a jovial, somewhat toothless grin.

He was beaming.

“Yes sir, this one here’s my fishing buddy, ” he said again, as he gently took her hand and affectionately smiled in her direction.

For the next ten minutes I was transfixed as this man, who moments before I had pitied, regaled me with story after story of his life together with his wife.  It was incredible.  What was even more incredible, however, was the change that occurred in me.

Watching this elderly man caress his wife’s hand, kiss her cheek, wipe away her drool, and joyfully recount their lives together provoked a powerful transformation of perspective within me. Gone was any semblance of pity.

Instead, in its place was envy.

Gregory Bledsoe is an emergency physician who blogs at GH Bledsoe.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • dontdoitagain

    My uncle died a few years ago with Alzheimers. For a few years before he died he didn’t know who I was. I always identified myself as his neice and we would talk about things that happened before I was even born, his mother, my grandmother, who was long dead but alive in his mind. I loved him. It was so sad to see a world traveled, well educated man reduced to what he was, but for a few minutes he was enjoying himself with me.

    The rest of my family couldn’t understand why I still maintained my relationship with an old man who couldn’t remember that I had talked to him. The whole thing is that *I* still remembered him from back in his glory days. I remember all the talks we had before he was afflicted and I remember talking about things long past after he was ill. I loved those talks with a senile old man and cherish those memories as well.

    It’s a matter of persective.

Most Popular