Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Unexpected Change Of Life

Imagine being in your early seventies, cruising through your golden years, content with knowing that you've lived a pretty blessed life. The kids have turned out well, you are still married to the spouse you fell in love with fifty years prior, and you end each day with a smile and a good book.

A well-deserved twilight in a much-appreciated life.

Unfortunately, though, life can be cruel. And being in your seventies doesn't guarantee you a trauma-free life. Or the use of your legs.

I walked into Room 17 to meet my next patient, a woman in her mid-seventies who was wheelchair-bound. As I walked into the room, I was graciously greeted by a smiling woman who sat upright in her treatment cot, her hand warmly outstretched, her straight legs extending limply in front of her. Her soft brown hair and matching eyes exuded good energy, matching the room's atmosphere. I immediately liked her. This patient's husband sat in a hospital chair under the room's cardiac monitor. His face, unlike his wife's, was etched with hesitation and concern.

Sitting in the room's far corner, tucked neatly away from both the patient and our medical team, sat a mechanical wheelchair, all black and high-backed, its leg-support frames jutting forward from the seat. A black shiny direction ball sat on the right armrest. Despite it's obscure location, the wheelchair was an elephant in the room.

"Hello, Mrs. Wilson," I said, walking up to this patient and grasping her extended hand, "I'm Doctor Jim. It's a pleasure to meet you." I turned to her husband, offering my hand, and we shook as well. He eyed me warily, his expression one of a fierce protectiveness that I have appreciated on a spouse's face of previous sick patients. I recognize it for what it is--a simple expression of deep love.

"Mrs. Wilson," I continued, turning back to the patient, "what can we do to help you today?" I sat down on the physician stool by the side of her bed.

"I'm worried I might have another blood clot in my leg," she said, eyeing her own left calf.

As explained by Mrs. Wilson, she had had a blood clot in her left leg several years prior. As a result, she had been placed on the blood-thinner coumadin, mainly to prevent any further blood clots from forming. In January of this year, she added, the coumadin had been stopped under her doctor's guidance. "And let me tell you," she said, sweeping her arms for emphasis, "I don't miss that medicine at all. Making adjustments with the daily dosages, getting endless blood draws to check the levels, and worrying about bleeding and bruising all the time. Who needs that?"

I laughed at her spirited animation. "I'm here today, though, doctor," she continued, "because my left calf is swollen and I am worried I may have developed another clot." With this, her husband spoke up, his husky voice contrasting his thin, wiry frame. "I hope not, honey. I know how much taking that medication bothered you."

I approached the difficult subject--her being wheelchair-bound. Wheelchair dependence equates to some degree of immobilization. Immobilization equates to a higher risk of blood clot formation, since the lack of contracting calf and thigh muscles decreases the vigor of the venous blood returning to the heart from the lower body.

"Mrs. Wilson," I asked gently, quietly, "do you mind me asking why you are dependent on a wheelchair. What happened?"

As she spoke, her husband looked down at his restless hands folded in his lap. Mrs. Wilson took a deep breath before starting. "It was a few years ago. I was driving alone in my car on a rainy day when, unfortunately, I had an accident. A horrible one at that. As soon as it happened, I couldn't move my legs. I thought that maybe I had broken them both. Or maybe they were pinned under my dashboard. As hard as I tried, though, I was stuck, trapped in my car." As she had approached these last spoken words, her voice had subconsciously lowered.

Her smile belied her anguish and I remained silent, patiently waiting for her to finish. "It turns out," she softly whispered, "that I was wrong. I didn't break both of my legs. And my legs weren't trapped under my dashboard. I had broken my lower back and this resulted in a spinal cord injury." An injury that changed her life forever.

Her husband contributed. "She had real bad arthritis and, because of this, her lower back vertebrae were brittle and couldn't tolerate the awful force of the accident. Her broken back pushed into her spinal cord and paralyzed her legs."

Imagine the wide circle of hurt that her injury had created. Her children, her grandchildren, her husband, her friends--the pebble of her injury must have rippled through too many unimaginable facets of the life that she knew.

I shook my head. "How awful," I muttered, immensely sad for her. I tried to imagine my mother or father in such a predicament, the changes in their life that would be necessary after so many complacent years without tragedy. Going from the general aches and pains that come with age to simply not having the use of their legs.

Mrs. Wilson placed her hand on top of mine, which was resting on her side rail. "Dr. Jim, I look at this injury as a blessing. Sure, there are inconveniences that come with each day, but I'm lucky to be alive." She paused, resting her eyes on my own. "I still get to wake up each day. I get to talk to my children, my husband, my grandchildren, and my friends. There is still a lot I can do." Her eyes lit up and her smile broadened as she talked. I had no doubt that this resilient woman had acquired a deeper understanding of the important things in life. "Don't get me wrong," she continued, "it's been hard, sometimes really hard," she said, nodding to her husband, "but I'm here and I'm alive. And I feel the love of my family."

Her perspective was inspiring and well-timed. I had been having one of those "poor me" days. Just the previous night, one of my favorite aunts, my Godmother, had died. I was struggling to wade through my next few shifts before heading home to be with my family throughout the visitations and funeral. For various reasons, my aunt's death had reminded me that I am entering another phase of life, where the people I respect and look up to for spiritual guidance were gradually leaving this world for greater things. I was sad for her children, my cousins.

Thanks to Mrs. Wilson, though, I lost my "poor me" attitude pretty quickly. I changed around my thinking, too. I pictured my aunt being reunited with my uncle, her husband. I pictured her being greeted by previously deceased family (including my mother) and friends. I pictured her smiling and pain-free. I pictured her as a protective angel who, undoubtedly, would watch over all of us. I would miss her, yes, but she was not suffering anymore.

Looking back at Mrs. Wilson, I saw nothing but smiling and warmth, an infinite aura of graciousness. Her appreciation for life was evident and dazzling. Her subtle lessons about life and loss and positively readjusting under difficult times were not lost on me.

Thank you, Mrs. Wilson.

I am happy to report that Mrs. Wilson didn't have a blood clot in her leg, after all. In other words, all that blood was returning to her heart just the way it should. With energy and vigor.

I wouldn't have expected anything less from this amazing lady.

As always, big thanks for reading. Have any of you sustained a tragedy that you've had to overcome? Next post will be Friday or, at the latest, Monday. See you then...


Empress Bee (of the High Sea) said...

another beautiful tale doc. sarge and i are now the oldest generation. it's a funny feeling in a way but a lovely one in another. when you still have parents you are still immortal, not so much when you don't. but we love life and try to make the most of every day. when he gets a little stronger we are going on another cruise too!

smiles, bee

Jacqueline said...

A few notes:

First, I am deeply sorry for your loss. I have no way of knowing if this story is from far in the past or recent, but my condolences are there, nonetheless.

My dad is on life long coumadin therapy due to a massive PE found in May 2006 as well as a family history of DVT and PEs...I've told you this before. What I haven't said, though, is that it makes his joints ache bad...he has bad knees from old sports injuries anyway, and too much weight, but when he goes off the coumadin for a procedure (i.e. colonoscopy), he says his joints feel so much better. Thus, that has lead to the current problem...he desperately needs and wants to lose weight, but it hurts him so much to walk just doing everyday activities. So we have been trying to figure out a way to get the exercise in while being on the coumadin. Also, like Mrs. Wilson, he also has all the blood work, adjustments, and worries associated with being on the medicine. All this to say that I am so thankful she did not have a blood clot and have to go back on coumadin.

As far as stuff I've had to got a few years? I've been kidnapped and beat up...watched my dad nearly die and be in ICU in a drug induced coma on a vent for a week...watched my best friend's dad succumb to Pancreatic Cancer...watched my uncle succumb to multiple PEs related to colon cancer surgery...and the latest...endured the dissolution of a 6 year relationship/1.5 year engagement with the love of my life, during finals week, with no reason this point, I really try to take it in stride. I hurt bad yeah, but I'm not going to let it get the best of me...can't let it get the best of me...have too much to live for.

Thanks for letting me vent, Dr. Jim.

Confessions of a Mother, Lawyer & Crazy Woman said...

This post brought tears to my eyes, thank you for that touching story. I was mom to a toddler and a full-time attorney with a busy practice when I was diagosed with a brain tumor at the age of 32. Things changed, literally, overnight. I am still here, but do struggle with trying to appreciate every day in the face of new challenges and uncertainty as to my future. I appreciate the smile ...

Kate said...

So sorry about your aunt. I dread the time when that starts happening in my life.

A couple months ago, one of the men that helped me get sober had a heart attack and died unexpectedly. I was heartbroken - as were the many people he had helped.

But as I laid down that night, I broke out in the big smile and thought, "Now he gets to meet Jason." (My dead finance) and that gave me such wonderful happy peace, I can't even describe it. Was a gift in the middle of the pain.

Katie said...

I'm sorry about the loss of your Godmother. And I'm inspired by the Mrs. Wilson story. Isn't it cool how God sends those little moments/ inspiring interactions at the times when we need them the most? I'll be praying for your family through this difficult time.

<>< Katie

littlepretendnurse said...

Meeting Mrs Wilson when you did was certainly a "tender mercy" from the Lord. Glad you were able to get the message. Sounds like she came to the ER that day for you not herself.

Jim (UK) said...

Angels help us out when we least expect it .

Charmingjessie said...

It really is true that adversity can bring forth the life you were supposed to be leading. 7 years ago I had a car accident and ended up with a traumatic brain injury. 18 months of physical/speech/cognitive therapy later, I was pretty much back to normal. But my old career doing assessments in a psych hospital wasn't a viable option anymore. I went back to college for my teaching certification in special ed. Now, years later, I'm married to another special ed teacher and we are the adoptive parents of two daughters, 20 and 21 years old. Both girls have mental retardation and one is also blind and has autism. I would not be the mother I am today if that accident had not have happened. I thank God for the elderly man who, as he said, shat his pants and lost control of his car and hit me. :-) It's not at all what I envisioned for my life, but it is everything I never knew I always wanted. Love reading your blog. Keep up the good work.

Tiffany said...

First off, let me say that I am sorry to hear about your loss with your auntie. Any loss of a loved one hurts.

As I read this post, it brought tears to my eyes, and smile to my face. This woman, even though I have never met her, reminds me soooo much of my late grandpa. The positive outlook, the subtle stuborness, the tenacity, the vigor, just everything about her, reminded me of him.

When My grandpa passed, I had a really difficult time. He died of basically congestive heart faliure and complications from that. He was in hospital for 4 months, and during those four months I was desperatley trying to make up for lost time. I dropped out of school to be there everysingle day, to hold his hand, to laugh with him, to solve wheel of fortune puzzles with him, and to help him shuffle back and forth to the bathroom. I was never close with my grandpa before then. But when I realized that his time was coming to an end, I realized that I could either be sad that I was never close with him, or I could try my best to make up for lost time. My grandpa was never one to wallow in self pitty, and had the same outlook on life that mrs. wilson has. Even when he knew he was dying, he never looked at it as a bad thing. I will never forget one night when I pulled an all nighter to be there with him. I was just dozing off in the geri chair, when he started coughing, and I saw his o2 sats start to drop. I immediately panicked and grabbed the nasal oxygen tubing that was hooked up already with the o2 on, and put it in his nose. (the nurse inside me wanted to take care of him) After I did that, and he regained his o2 sats at 98, he grabbed my hand and started to whisper to me. I protested and said " shhh grandpa just rest, take deep breaths, go back to bed". But because he was stubborn, he said "Tiffany, I will do what I want. and what I want to do right now is to tell you something." Not about to argue with him I sat on the edge of his bed listening. "Tiffany, I should have told you something a long time ago. I want you to know that you are a really good kid, and that even though we werent that close, you are very special. Please always remember, that no matter what happens in life, it happens for a reason. We may not know what that reason is, but there is a reason. Please dont ever forget that. No matter what problems you will face, theres a reason your facing them. Dont forget that kiddo"

This post made me think back to that night. To that determined, cup half full approach to life my grandpa, and mrs wilson have.

Sorry, if this was a long comment, just wanted you to know that this post touched me in many ways. Thankyou for the opportunity for me to reminice about my grandpa.

As always, thanks for the great post!!

Chrysalis Angel said...

I, too, am sorry for the loss of your Aunt.

StorytellER, your writing is just beautiful. You are coming into your own so beautifully. You were meant to write. Thank you for sharing all these wonderful posts.

WarmSocks said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your aunt.

What a great reminder to treasure the opportunity of awakening every morning and spending time with loved ones. Thank you for sharing your wonderful writing with us.

Heather said...

wow, i'm so sorry to hear about your aunt. :(

as far as tragedies... would you count dealing with a kid with a severe heart defect and going through 27 admits, 13 surgeries, countless trips to emerg and clinics, all while dealing with 2 other kids with ADHD, my marriage to an abusive addict ending 2 years ago, and going through all of this while managing your own rapid-cycling bipolar disorder without meds? does that count? LOL i've learned to laugh at the scariest things ("well, after the surgery, when Asher's in ICU with his ribcage suspended, i'll just tell people he's 'hanging in there.'" LMAO). i've learned to cling to my God. i've learned that it's ok to need and ask for help. i've learned that the people who abandon you were probably not real friends to start with. and i've learned that your real friends aren't usually the ones you'd ever have expected.

thanks for sharing yet another wonderful story. :)

SeaSpray said...

This was such a moving post Jim.

I admire her attitude and her husband's devotion.

I understand 100% how you feel about losing loved ones.

I am so sorry for your loss. I appreciate your sharing your perspective on how she is better off and being with other loved ones there. I also 100% believe that too.


Freda said...

Thank you for such an inspiring story. Sorry to hear about your godmother. We still need our own space to grieve and to come to terms with mortality. You, more than most, know that already. So take care of yourself too. And please keep on sharing such wonderful stories. Every Blessing.

Have Myelin? said...

Your writing is very soothing. I too have suffer a loss. I'm sorry for yours...they do hurt.

I have suffered multiple losses the last three years but the loss of my daughter in June/09 is one I can barely deal with sometimes.

She was only 34 and died of multiple organ failure.

Peter said...

Hi! Yes, we do have a lot to be thankful for. Reminded by stories such as this we should thank our lucky stars for what we have now.

Yesterday, I was reminded how resilient the older folk can be, when I came across a 92 year old trapped in her car. Yes, she was still driving at that age and was as fit as a fiddle.

I can only hope I will be the same at her age, if I'm lucky enough to live that long that is.

Take Care,

coulrophobic agnostic said...

I always think of accidents like that as happening to younger people. Don't know why. She sounds delightful - I'm glad she was okay after all.

Just lost my dad about six months ago, and...yeah. It's impossibly hard. I'm sorry about your aunt.