In her hospital bed, she sat there confused as to what was buzzing around her. Rita was 96 years old and in the throes of dementia and agitation. As her physician assigned to her that week, I remember walking into her room and noticed her elderly husband brushing her hair w an unsteady hand and feeding her chocolates.
“My sweetie loves chocolates,” he states.
Rita, agitated, grabs his arm and throws it into the air.
“Who are you?” she bellows.
“I’m Randy, honey. Remember, your husband of 70 years. Honey, don’t do that. I’m giving you your favorite chocolates,” he continues to say.
She relaxes and allows Randy to brush her hair.
As I talk to Randy about his wife’s deteriorating medical condition, he listens with tears glistening out of the corners of his eyes.
He proceeds to say, “I still love my Rita. She is just as beautiful today as the day I met her when she was 24 years old.”
Amazing. I leave the room feeling uplifted that something as sweet as that still exists in this crazy world. Randy saw past her disease and cherished the Rita he knew. He loved her that much.
What about Mr. Johnson, the 50-year-old patient stricken suddenly with aggressive pancreatic cancer whose wife gives up her well-established and lucrative career to become his sole caretaker? He can’t walk so she helps him. He can’t go to the bathroom, so she helps him. He can’t shower, so she bathes him. He refuses to eat, and she coaxes him to eat at least a few pieces of oranges. He becomes anxious and scared, and she is always there at his side, providing him comfort. One day, I walk into his room, and she is reading him prayers and telling stories of their younger years. He used to be the stronghold of their little family, and now roles are reversed.
In stark contrast, I recall the 79-year-old dying gentleman who did not want me to call his ex-wife and children when I knew he only had hours left in this world. I don’t want to bother them. They have children and careers and lives of their own.
In medicine, we tend to focus much on the patient, which is expected. As a hospitalist, I walk into the room, begin my questions, proceed with the examination, and answer any questions the patient or family may have, and move onto the next room.
But let us not forget the caregivers who carry the world on their shoulders and sacrifice so much for their loved ones. Rita had no idea who she was with her dementia nor the man seated beside her. Mr. Johnson’s body was deteriorating, but his mind was sharp enough to know all that his wife was doing for him. Until we walk in their shoes, we won’t know what kind of sacrifice these caregivers were making emotionally and physically.
As a physician, I get the privilege to meet and interact with people from diverse backgrounds. I see patients who are sick and alone, and I see patients who are sick and have that one doting spouse who takes notes, researches, and listens like its ta job. Who do you want in your corner? I see young people who say, “Oh, he brought me flowers and gifts, so he will be a great spouse and provider.” But from a doctor’s perspective, the question to ask is when you get old and toward the end of your life, will he or she push your wheelchair, brush your hair, bathe you and feed you chocolate if you are too confused to recognize anyone? I am privileged as a physician to witness life’s struggles daily, especially towards its very end. Through taking care of my patients and watching their caregivers, I am taught about cherishing life, being fearless of death, and knowing real love when it hits you in the face.
G.W. Carter once wrote, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life, you will have been all of these.”
This piece is dedicated to all caregivers out there, including my mom who was all this for my dad. He recently passed away after a long courageous medical fight.
Lizbeth Hingst is a hospitalist.
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