Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Archive for February 7th, 2008

The other one in the room

Posted by boakley59 on February 7, 2008

Illness is a hard teacher. It reveals our fragility; it vanquishes all pretensions of independence.

But the hardest teachers often give the lessons we need most and retain longest. Sometimes the lessons take a while to sink in, but once they do, we are better equipped to understand our place.

Illness has been teaching me since November 1998, when my digestive system began to digest itself. In the span of a few weeks I lost 20 pounds, and eventually most of what I was passing was blood. I’m normally only a slight 140 pounds at 6 feet tall, so there wasn’t much of me left when I ended up in intensive care. After I had been in my private room for a couple of days, one of the nurses came in and said she was surprised someone so young was in the ward. In my late 30s, I was decades younger than all of the patients in what was mainly a cardiac care ward. A day or two later as I began to show some signs of improvement, another nurse said the staff had been quite worried about me, because I was the sickest person in the wing.

Alone in my room, I had long hours to think about what it means to be not yet 40 but still sicker than multiple-bypass patients in their 80s and 90s. The lesson of vulnerability didn’t really hit home, though. I never doubted that the medicines would help such a fit and trim fellow get back on his feet again. Indeed I did recover and within a couple of years was truly on my feet, running road races and winning my age group.

So it was while training for a marathon that my disease flared again.

The episode eventually put me back in the hospital, after drug therapy to suppress my system hyperactivated a stealth infection, an abscess we didn’t know I had. I wasn’t the sickest patient in the wing this time, though. In fact, I didn’t have the worst case of medicine gone awry in my own room. The fellow in the room’s other bed had lost a leg after an extreme allergic reaction when touched in an unrelated procedure by something not known to have latex in it. Then his painkillers gave him paranoid delusions, and he fought for his life against nurses he thought were foreign spies trying to give him a lethal injection.

Many hard teachings there: Medicine is a double-edged sword; fear keeps us clutching at life; as with Achilles, it’s the little hidden things that bring us down.

We all have heroes fighting to save us though, and again I was sent home healed and enlightened. The school of hard knocks is always in session, however, and once more I fell ill in 2007. This episode put me in the hospital three separate times.

The first visit came when hospital admissions were mercifully light, so I had a room to myself. Able to rest easily and to eat regularly, I seemed to improve fast and was quickly released. Unfortunately, illness teaches that life at home, even when couch-bound, is not so restful or easy as life in a hospital bed. My symptoms regained force and I had to be readmitted.

The second visit found me with a roommate with a similar abdominal condition, but he had needed colon surgery. The abdomen is a busy cauldron of bacteria, some helpful, some harmful. Surgery always stirs the cauldron, and he had developed an infection. His underlying condition and the tissues sensitive after surgery meant he needed painkillers. The infection meant he needed antibiotics. The colon needs to be active to remove waste that can contribute to worsening infection. Painkillers suppress muscle activity that helps remove the waste. His condition and his medicines were in a constant free-for-all.

Again illness teaches about the delicate balance of these fragile vessels.

The most important message finally hit home this time as I thought about my roommates and about the burdens Suzy had taken upon herself during my incapacity: Only when we think we are alone can we feel sorry for ourselves.

Alone in that first hospital room years ago, I thought it was a harsh fate to be the youngest and the sickest person in intensive care. Years later, in another hospital room, I watched a man fight imaginary demons conjured by the medicines meant to fight the pain of a leg lost to a subtle accident in care. Years later still, I watched another man who had lost part of himself try to keep his balance on a merry-go-round of pain and recovery. At home, I saw the strain on Suzy as she did the work of two while I could do no more than the slow work of recovery.

So, illness has taught me about looking around the room. When someone else is there, that’s who I need to worry about, not myself. The amazing thing is that the lesson holds true for anyone in the room. I am certain that Suzy thinks I am far worse off dealing with my illness than she is coping with the strain of housekeeping and breadwinning. And I suspect that my hospital roommates saw something in my condition somehow more tragic than theirs. Perhaps one thought I was too young and faced missing too much life while his had already been full. Perhaps one saw my illness on a similar path to his and he lamented the pains he knew I would face.

And so illness teaches. When you want to feel sorry for yourself, look around the room. When you wonder who needs your concern, who needs your love, the answer is always “the other one in the room.”

The best lesson of all is that, when we think about who and where we are, none of us is ever alone in a room.

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