counter easy hit All the Roadrunning: September 2008

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The lessons we learn

This past week I was sitting with a patient who has approximately three months to live. I often think what my own reaction would be to that prognosis, but that's another story. A year or so ago, this man was a tall, strong, athletic 80 year old playing golf every day. He now shuffles his feet, can only walk across the room and his rounded shoulders make it hard to believe he really is 6 feet tall. He loves to talk about golf or watch it on television but sadly he has no other interests. He and his wife have a lovely in-law suite in his daughter's house. His daughter has two teenagers so the house is always lively. We have asked him if he would like some videos or books on tape. He politely refused. I asked if he like the History Channel or Animal Planet or game shows. "Not really" he replied. No doubt he is depressed as he spends most of the day just sitting or sleeping. It is painful for his family to watch him this way.

Another gentleman I see each week has the same prognosis, maybe three months. He lives alone in a studio apartment that reminds me of a college dorm room. It has a computer up and running at all times, a ham radio, a flat screen television and books galore. He talks about how full his life is and how wonderful his family is. They visit daily, but most of the day he is alone. He can't walk at all, but does have one of those electric wheelchairs that take him out into the hall, per chance to meet a neighbor. Each week he shows me something on the computer, usually an email from one of his pen pals in Canada or Norway. He gives me the local police and fire updates as they come in. The phrases "not enough hours in the day" or "life is too short" take on a whole new meaning when I leave there.

I'm not sure why I love this kind of work so much. Friends think it strange that I do. Maybe it does have to do with the fact that my dad died at age 36 from cancer. He died in the hospital, not at home with his family. He was on the fourth floor. I remember it was the fourth floor because children were not allowed to visit so my mom would bring us out on the lawn and we could wave up to him. I was only six years old. As I got older I realized that my grieving was not so much for my loss but for his. What was he thinking when looking down at his three daughters and knowing he would never go home again? So, coincidentally, I help terminally ill folks die at home. They all have their own personal journey. I'm just privileged to be a small part of it.