Wednesday, May 30, 2012
My Courageous Patient
“Oh my God!” The charge nurse shook her head, and sighed. I heard her, as I stood by her desk, looking for a medical chart.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The new admit...” Her face had an unusual, worrisome expression. “Have you met him?”
“No, not yet. I’m actually looking for his chart.”
“Please, go and see him.” She looked distraught. “I’ve never had a patient that looked like that. It’s just so sad.”
“What?” I frowned, with no clue of what was upsetting her so much. I thought I should better go and meet Mr. Johnson, the new resident who had just been admitted.
I knocked at the door. “Come on in,” I heard a deep voice reply from inside the room. I opened the door and walked in. Mr. Johnson was sitting on the recliner.
I understood immediately why the nurse was disturbed. Mr. Johnson’s appearance was shocking. Nothing like I had seen in a nursing home before.
Mr. Johnson had suffered a long fight with cancer, and it had won, now metastasized, with his face showing the battle scars. He had just undergone a surgery that required part of his skull and face being removed. Some kind of skin implant was done to cover the enormous wound.
I was prepared to see something heartbreaking, but not to this extent. His appearance was something only Hollywood would produce, a picture from a scary movie. It was certainly disturbing.
Fortunately, I remained calm, and treated him like any other of my residents. I welcomed him, and offered to accommodate for him anything that was feasible to meet his needs.
He was polite, yet his words carried a hint of authority.
He wasn’t looking for sympathy.
At that moment, I started looking at Mr. Johnson from a different perspective, his appearance being no longer a distraction. I saw a proud man in his late eighties, not ready to give up with his long battle against cancer.
In the following days, the staff complained that Mr. Johnson was “demanding,” and that he would not comply with some of the “standard” care protocols.
“He doesn’t listen, he just does what he wants to do,” an aide said.
“He wants to go home but the hospital told him he had to go to a rehab facility,” a therapist commented.
“Mr. Johnson is really upset,” a nurse voiced to me. “He went to the dining room for breakfast and he got mad at people staring at him.”
My lips drew taut. I knew my resident was facing not just the battle against his illness, but also the shun of others who failed to realize that the scars he visibly bore in his losing fight against the cancer hurt his pride.
I visited Mr. Johnson in his room that afternoon. He laid in his bed. He asked me to sit at his bedside. I did, and we began a light, trivial conversation. Then he seemed comfortable enough to start telling me about his personal life.
He spent a great deal of time talking about his career in the military. The conversation turned into a fascinating and meaningful discourse. The spirit of a courageous officer emerged there in front of me as he continued his narration of his 26 years in the military. A brave American soldier shone through his anecdotes of his WWll mission as a gunner in a military aircraft.
I no longer looked at a patient with a deformed facial appearance, with protuberant freshly and bloody scars. What was in front of me was a hero. A hero from WWII and a hero here and present, struggling to be released from yet another battle, for freedom.
Mr. Johnson talked about his illness, and how he had gone against the odds to survive, even though his battle had left him with quite an unpleasant appearance.
“I’m fully aware of how I look, and won’t be intimidated because of that. That’s why I went to the dining room this morning, but it was overwhelming to see all those people staring at me, like if I looked creepy.” Mr. Johnson spoke in a broken voice and his eyes welled in tears.
I held his hand, and said nothing. I felt a knot in my throat.
“You see? I want to be where I belong... home.” Mr. Johnson said with soft words. “I want to go home.”
“Mr. Johnson, you’re a fighter, and an inspiration to anyone who will know you.”
A week later, I went to Mr. Johnson’s room to say good-bye. He was being discharged to his home that day. Home health services and other medical arrangements were made.
“You’re an angel. Thank you,” Mr. Johnson said, and drew close to me, kissing me on my cheek.
I hugged him, fighting away tears.
I heard that Mr. Johnson died two weeks after his discharge. His body had given up, but his spirit remained, especially among those he touched with his wisdom and courage.
"Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit - a magic blend of skill, faith, and valor - that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory." - Walter Lord (1917 - 2002)