Our patient was eighty-nine-years old with Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s is a progressive, incurable neurologic disease.
For our patient, maybe twenty years ago, it began with a small tremor in his hand. But now it had rendered him helpless. Helpless: completely dependent on others for survival; you can’t feed yourself, clean yourself or move without assistance.
It doesn’t matter if you were once a powerful CEO, or a hard-core individualist—diseases like Parkinson’s don’t discriminate.
The page went out as a “public assist call.” His wife needed our help to lift him off the toilet and back in to his bed.
Let me stop here. If you’re young, busy with life and work and you think, “I don’t want to hear about lifting a patient off a toilet, this has no relevance to me,” please think again.
Why? Each of us, in our turn will likely play one of these roles. We will need to be lifted and cradled like a child, or we will be the care-giver, the lifter, the caller to the fire department because we simply do not have the strength. O’ my friends who believe themselves unique, immortal and indestructible: it’s immutable truth; all living things are vulnerable, even you.
No Exceptions, No One Exempt
When our patient was in his thirties I’m sure he was well over six feet tall. There were pictures of him in the hallway, portraits of an active and vibrant man. He was still taller than me, but now he’d atrophied down to, at best, one hundred pounds.
He had lost control of his bowels and bladder. It’s the natural progression, part of the disease. His wife profusely apologized for the mess and the smell, but we told her there was no need. We should stop pretending. This is who we all will become. We will lose control of our very basic functions, we will cede control of ourselves to others.
He was sitting on the toilet facing us. Our first task was to lift him, turn him and sit him in his wheel chair.
Did you know that we now have archeological evidence that suggests that 40,000 years ago, our ancestral tribes were taking care of the elderly and weak? At first glance, from an evolutionary point of view that doesn’t make sense. Why not cull the weak and injured? But there is a deeper evolutionary drum beat. The impulse to care for the tribe and even the most vulnerable is the glue that allowed us to survive.
We should stop pretending. This is who we all will become.
I squatted down in front of him and lifted his arms around my shoulders. I reached around his back and hugged him. Then I stood up with him in my arms. We stood there for a minute finding our balance, holding on to each other. I murmured the words of every firefighter or medic ever in this situation, “I got you, I’m not going to let you fall.”
His chin was resting on my shoulder, I felt his breath and beard against my neck. My partner that day, Terry, reached in and repeated, “We got you, we’re going to take care of you.”
We gently maneuvered him to his wheelchair and then slowly rolled him down the hall and lifted him into his bed. His wife continued to clean him and thanked us again. He smiled and then closed his eyes and slept.
The Compassion of Human Nature
It’s immutable truth; all living things are vulnerable, even you.