The following article I wrote after an experience I had in an ICU. I hope you enjoy the read.
“I WANT OUTTA HERE! GET OUT OF MY WAY! LET ME UP!” The shouts burst from ICU room 5. The ICU staff at the nurse’s station stiffened. The shouting quieted as I heard the soothing voice of his nurse speak gentle words to calm him.
Dementia. Alzheimer’s disease. That’s what I was hearing. I was in ICU consulting on a gynecology patient when I heard the ruckus. Dementia patients, I knew, could compensate for their declining mental function when in familiar surroundings with familiar people. But, put them in a strange place with strange people–and add to that an illness–and the disease really shows itself.
Dementia in most cases starts with the gradual loss of short term memory which is first noticeable to those closest to the person. As time passes, this always progressive illness affects ones ability to learn and retain new information, to handle tasks such as balancing a checkbook, to cope with unexpected events, to recognize familiar places and to find words to express ones self. Most troubling are the personality changes. Gentle, kind, caring individuals can become agitated, aggressive, angry, mean, harsh and can become abusive to their family and other care-givers.
Four million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. No one knows the cause. Treatments do not stop the progression of the disease.
My mind reflected back to my father-in-law who developed Alzheimer’s in his later years. The family watched as this gentle man, a soft-spoken man of great faith, lost touch with reality and became angry, harsh and even abusive to his wife and to those around him.
Illness is messy, I reminded myself. It’s hard. It’s inconvenient, taxing and often depressing. Save the miraculous healing power of God, dementia patients as with my father-in-law follow a downhill course. Our family watched a daily decline, a slow death until he finally succumbed to this disease.
As I sat and pondered, I thought of the beautiful letter former President Reagan wrote to the nation upon learning he had Alzheimer’s disease. (http://www.americanpresidents.org/letters/39.asp) In that letter, he lamented, “Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.” How true. How kind to acknowledge the burden Nancy would face, did face. He also acknowledged, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.” Quite an unusual admission for one so diagnosed since most people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have no sense that they have the disease.
After I examined my patient, I returned to the nurse’s station to write my note. From the room, I could hear the voice of this man’s son. “Remember that picture, Dad?…Let me help you with that, Dad…The nurse is going to give you a small shot. Isn’t she wonderful, Dad? She’s here to help you.” On and on I heard his son speak loving and kind words to his father. I knew then, that the son got it. This son realized the angry outbursts were the disease talking, not his Dad talking. He realized the disease now spoke and acted in place of the father he knew. He realized that his Dad was still in there deserving of all the care he could give.
My eyes watered. What a gift this son gave his Dad. On a Saturday afternoon with football on TV and other responsibilities no doubt pressing in on him, he was here. In the ICU. Showing love to his Dad, his Dad who could not return the love in any way, who did not even know who his son was.
I thought of the thousands of other spouses and families caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease and their equally significant gifts of unselfish love. I prayed as I left the ICU that God would grant this son the strength to see his Dad through to the end, and that, should they meet in heaven one day, he would hear his Dad say, “Yes, son. I do remember that picture.”