There is a man. He is in my house. I don’t know where he came from. But he just came into my house. And now he is living there. And I am afraid of him. I do not know who he is. There is a man in my house. I am so scared. I don’t know why he came. But he is there. And he tells people he is my husband. And he is not! He is not! And no one believes me. Do you believe me? He is not my husband. I am so scared. Do you believe me? I am a good person. I have seven children. I am an honest person. There is something wrong. I know there is. I know there is.
My patient. Age 68. She perseverates about this man. She is insistent. She was found wandering in the hospital parking lot. No one is with her. She wants to let out her fear in screams, but her voice is thin and frail. She is so frightened.
They told me she has early onset Alzheimer’s dementia a year and a half ago. Last week I found her standing outside in the rain. A few days ago she had walked down to the neighbor’s house three doors down at 11 o’clock at night without a coat on. Today, she had an accident in the bathroom. She hollered for me to come to the bathroom and then hurried me away because she said she was going to clean it up. I went to check on her and she was gone. She had taken the car and left. She drove herself here.
My patient’s husband. He is soft-spoken. His left hand tremors as he stands. His face is slightly glossy and his expressions are muted. I explain that she currently is confused. She thinks he is not who he is. She may be frightened to see him.
Sometimes she gets like that. She yells at me. “Get out! Get out! You don’t love me! You don’t love me! You son of a bitch! Get out!” It hurts my feelings. It does. It really hurts my feelings. And then sometimes she tells me she loves me. She thanks me for being her husband.
He speaks with a hollow, flat voice. He stares at me with foggy, pale blue eyes. His sadness and defeat lean into me. He tells me to wait for his son. His son is arranging for her to go to a center. He’ll have the details to tell me.
We’ve been married 44 years. We have seven children. And 16 grandchildren! She is my world. Can I go in?
We stand outside her room, and his eyes fall on the closed door handle. I tell him that she seems frightened at the moment, but he knows best. If he thinks she will be comforted by the sight of him, he is more than welcome to go into her room. If he thinks it may make matters worse, he is welcome to wait in the waiting room. Whatever he thinks would be best for her.
Well. I think I’ll try, doc. If she shouts and hollers and shoos me away, I’ll go outside. But if I go in quietly, sometimes I can talk to her and she is okay with me staying there. And then sometimes she warms up to me. I’m going to try.
He is soft-spoken but resolute. I peer through the crack he leaves in the door as he slowly inches in. He leans over the railing of the bed. He straightens her white crisp hospital sheet. She looks at him, and I can’t hear their conversation, but that is relieving. He settles into the seat next to her side.
The next time I enter the room, the husband has left with family to rest, and the patient’s son sits at the bedside. He loves his parents, and he tells me that they are arranging for her to go to a memory care center.
He won’t be far behind her. He can barely take care of himself, let alone her. It’s just been too much for him, you know?
The last ten days have been draining on their family. This seems like a quicksand downhill plunge. They have been in and out of hospitals. She was at her neurologist’s three days ago, and there is nothing to do. Maybe these new medications will help. They will take time. In the meantime, they are chasing her in the rain.
I come back when the work-up is finished. I am relieved. She has a urinary tract infection. I am not relieved there is something wrong with her, but I am relieved there is something fixable. You see, urinary tract infections can make you more confused than normal. Confusion can be the absolute only sign that you have an infection. And there it was. The last ten days of rapidly losing this adored wife, this beloved mom, this treasured grandmother, explained with a urinary tract infection. IV antibiotics were started, and I admitted her to the hospital where she would not wander into the rain, and she would get better.
I am not saying this is the end of their battle, that it won’t still be a declining slope, but I am saying that maybe they haven’t completely lost her the way they had thought.
I go back into the room to tell them. She is no longer tense and tearful. She is relaxed and loved and safe next to her son. I tell them about all the things I have done. Laboratory studies, CT scan, and that she has a urinary tract infection that is very treatable. She laughs out loud, and all sense of that frightened woman I had met before seem to be drowned right out. She holds her hand up high in the air to give me a high-five.
Wow! Good job, doctor! So thorough! Thank you!
She laughs joyously like I have just uncovered the eighth wonder of the world for her to see. I thank her for the first high-five of my day. We all chuckle together like old friends, and it feels good.
There it was. A glimpse of her real self. All the charisma, all the spunk, all the warmth. There was the woman he has loved for 44 years. There is the woman that raised seven children with all the strength in the world. I see her now. I can see why this is so hard. To see her, then lose her, then see her. It would hurt my feelings too.
Hold close to those you love. Remember all you love about them. Tell them often. Let what you love imprint itself onto you, because you never know which way life may turn.
Cindy Winebrenner is an emergency physician who blogs at Mom-Wife-Doctor Thoughts.
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