I didn’t think it was possible for routine outpatients in the Wound Clinic to get sicker, but apparently it is. At the end of a long and defeating day of unsolvable problems, my last patient was a retired physician in his 90’s with a cardiac ejection fraction of 15%. Every organ in his body is failing except his brain. Even though his guitar playing days are over, he recited for me the song lyrics he had written the night before. He’s driving his family and the Home Health nurses crazy. He’s difficult and angry and there is no fix for what ails him. He’s lost control of his life and he’s dying slowly with his mind intact. All I could do was put my arms around him.
I haven’t talked much about the 12-year battle I had with my husband’s dementia. It’s been 8 months since he died, and I am starting to process things. Only a few weeks before the end, as his brilliant mind completely came apart, he started hallucinating. Normally a sweet man, he became volatile. I thought I could handle him – but I couldn’t. I got him admitted to a locked psych facility under the care of geriatric psychiatrists. I knew they couldn’t help his dementia, but I hoped they could help his mood. I was afraid he’d go berserk at this final loss of autonomy, and I was nervous when I arrived for my first visit. The staff and the doctors were wonderful, but the 1970’s era decor was dreadful. The “accent wall” of his spartan room was painted a hideous olive green – Army green. But he was sitting in his room waiting for me, beaming happiness. He was really enjoying this summer training back on active duty, and Ft. Hood had not changed a bit. He wasn’t sure when the base commander would let him come home, but I wasn’t to worry about him. He was meeting such nice people and making friends. In fact, He had decided to go on one more tour of duty before he retired. He was, however, worried that the Army seemed to be taking absolutely ANYONE these days…
It’s OK to laugh just a little. For a decade I lived inside the movies “Finding Dory” and “Fifty First Dates.” It’s not as funny in real life, but you have laugh when you can. My husband never got over having to give up medical practice. If losing his reason for living wasn’t bad enough, the relentless, incremental loss of all autonomy drove him literally insane. Then suddenly he was his old happy self – because he thought he was back at work. Not in his nice private practice, but in the Army no less! He wanted so much to be useful, you see.
Our lives are dominated by the unceasing demands of work, school and family. We are physically exhausted from lack of sleep and mentally exhausted from stress. But one day we may look back on this difficult time and wish we could have it back again. So, I am resolved to appreciate these challenging days. Today I will savor the companionship of the dedicated people I work with, the blessing of meaningful work, the privilege of easing human suffering and the satisfaction of healing horrible wounds. And I’m also contemplating the value of the occasional delusion.