This is part one of a three part series about Patrick who was admitted to hospice with end stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at age fifty-five. Patrick is wheelchair bound and needs assistance with all his personal care. He is oxygen dependent and is so weak that I frequently find him in his wheelchair, slumped over sleeping, with his arms and head resting on a dining room table. Patrick stated, “I’ve had breathing problems and lived in assisted living facilities since I was forty years old.”
Patrick is six feet – three inches tall and only weighs about one-hundred-twenty pounds. Patrick declared, “I used to weigh over three-hundred pounds. Now I’m just a shell.” I shared with Patrick that when my best friend from high school and I talk on the telephone, the first one to be asked how they’re doing always reply’s, “I’m just a shell of the man I used to be”. And I admitted to Patrick, that at this stage of my life, I frequently find myself trying to persuade people that, “I didn’t always look like this!” Patrick looked up, grinned, and nodded in agreement.
And just so you know, Patrick “didn’t always look like this” either. Patrick reminisced, “I had three brothers, but Mom couldn’t handle raising all four of us; so I went to live with my grandmother when I was five. She was a wonderful person. She always tried to teach me what was right. I went to Wheelersburg high school and I was first baseman on the baseball team, but we were terrible! I guess I was alright. I was also in the mixed chorus and even sang solos, but I sure couldn’t do that now. I loved chemistry and math and I graduated fourth in my class. I was on the first work crew of the new MacDonald’s in Wheelersburg; and I was also on the first work crew at the Wheelersburg Cinema when it first opened up. After high school I spent twenty years opening up new theatres all around the state. I hired and trained the new crews. I started out as a doorman in a cinema in Gallipolis and I became a supervisor when I was only nineteen.
I’m reminded of an anonymous poem I read years ago, titled, “A Crabby Old Woman”; in Patrick’s case I’ll take the liberty to retitle it “A Crabby Old Man”: “What do you see, nurses (health care workers), what do you see, what are you thinking when you’re looking at me; a crabby old man, not very wise, uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes? Who dribbles his food and makes no reply when you say in a loud voice, “I do wish you’d try”…Is that what you’re thinking? Is that what you see? Then open your eyes…you’re not looking at me…
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still, as I do at your bidding, as I eat at your will…inside this old carcass a young man still dwells, and now and again my battered heart swells. I remember the joys, I remember the pain, and I’m loving and living life over again…So open your eyes…open and see, not a crabby old man; look closer – see ME!
Paul Tournier, Swiss physician, wrote about “The discovery of the person” in his book, “The Meaning of persons“. Following are some excerpts, some bits and pieces, some food for thought: “The person, pure and unvarnished will always escape us…always eludes discovery…we only get glimpses of a person…The very judgments we pass on others prevent us from really getting to know them…We cannot understand a person without putting them into the context of the scenery of their life…Men expect of us that we should understand them as cases, but they also want to be understood as persons…it is especially as he approaches death…that the patient needs to be seen by his doctor(health care providers), not as an automaton (machine, robot) but as a person.”
I’ll leave you with a comment that Helen, another hospice patient with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, made to me after a visit: “The mind is a marvelous thing. You have so many memories stored inside, but it takes someone else to come along and pull them out so you can enjoy them all over again. We ignite something in each other don’t we?”
The plan in the heart of a man is like deep water, but a man of understanding draws it out” (Proverbs 20:5)
Loren Hardin is a hospice social worker at Southern Ohio Medical Center and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 740-356-2525