Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
Sometimes a patient and their physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles will bring you to tears. Though emotionally taxing, the work we do is uniquely rewarding when we can help.
Ron is a small guy, about 5’6” and 130 pounds. He has tried to gain weight without success, making him the envy of many who gain weight despite their best efforts. He came to the clinic with lumbar pain that radiated down his right leg into the back of his calf. Provocative orthopedic and neurological testing led to the conclusion that the problem was between his L5 vertebra and the sacrum on the right side, as something was hitting the first sacral nerve root that serves the back of the calf and the bottom of the foot. This could be disc material, a bone spur, or (likely) a combination of the two.
Ron has always been a hard worker. Currently however he is unemployed, not at the behest of the flailing economy, but by his choice. He is taking a break from his own life in order to care for an ailing uncle.
Ron’s uncle has closer relatives, but they are busy with their own lives. Ron is taking it on himself to provide for this senior in his last days. His uncle is not always lucid, but when he is, he expresses his strong desire to stay at home with his dignity as much intact as possible. And this is Ron’s mission.
Unfortunately, Ron’s uncle is about twice Ron’s size. He is unable to participate actively in his own care, often disoriented, and sometimes combative. He falls often when Ron is the only person to help him get back to a seat or onto his bed. This takes us back to Ron and his ailing back, which is continuously exacerbated by the physical stress he has taken on in the care of his uncle.
I must take a minute and expressed my admiration for Ron and his dedication. He is not, as I said above, the closest relative of this uncle, but he is the one willing to set aside his own life for the uncle’s care. He is sacrificing his body out of a sense of commitment to family. I have seen him in agony, but I have never heard him complain and never seen him hesitate to do what is necessary in the care of his uncle. This kind of family love is rare, self sacrificing, and it brings one to tears to see it. I think Ron is heroic.
Ron is the sole caretaker of his uncle now. The daily chores of bathing, dressing, giving medications, running errands, shopping, preparing meals, transporting his uncle to appointments, doing the laundry, and housekeeping all fall on Ron and his injured spine. It is like watching over a child, except that children can learn and grow into self-care.
I think his case is worth discussing because many of us have seniors at home now. It is part of the baby boomer generation experience to have ailing parents, some of whom are the last stragglers of America’s greatest generation who once marched to war, saving Western civilization. Now they are marching at a slower, irregular pace to their eternal award. The children they spawned sometimes struggle mightily to provide for their needs and comfort in these last days.
My job is to support Ron through this process, and hopefully get him healthy when his task has gone to fruition. We are keeping them on his feet with spinal decompression and physiotherapy, propping him up the best way we can.
There is help available for people like Ron. Hospice care can take a tremendous load off a home caretaker. These angelic professionals are masters of this field and they have human and equipment resources to bring to the task. Death does not have to be imminent for hospice to be appropriate, as many people think. If you are in Ron’s situation, it might be helpful for you to talk to a hospice professional.
Sometimes there is funding for veterans for long-term care. A visit with a VA counselor might be productive. Inpatient care in the VA is more troublesome nowadays.
There are folks in our community who are professional sitters that can be of help. These are also angels in a different form, and often you will see in them white hair that symbolizes their experience, and arthritic hands earned in loving service to others over a lifetime. I know a few of these, and we have propped up some of them, too.
Also, if you are in Ron’s situation, you need to take care of yourself, or you will be of limited help to your loved one. Take a break from your loved one regularly. When you become a parent to your parent, it changes your relationship significantly. It will weigh you down and rob you of the joy of that relationship if you do not take breaks to keep your own psyche healthy. You can even arrange a visit for your ailing relative in respite care in a local nursing home for a weekend.
There is much more I can say about Ron, my admiration and empathy for him, and about his daily struggle. I hope someday that he can reflect peacefully on this time and effort that he invested, knowing that he did his best. I hope that we can keep him physically up to his task so that he can see this race to the finish line.
And, as I care for Ron and so many like him, I hope I never get to the point that Ron does not bring me to tears.