“Who is changing this TV channel to cooking shows?” a nurse was asking, exasperation evident in her voice. “Every time I turn around, someone changes it, and I am sick of it.”
The voices from the ICU patient room were audible in the hallway. I stopped to listen before I entered the room.
“But the patient…” – the nursing student couldn’t quite get the word in. “What about the patient?”, the nurse interrupted. “I am sure the patient doesn’t want to watch some boring cooking show; here, I am changing it back to the news.”
I’m a hospital based cardiologist who does a lot of consultations. Today, 88-year old African American Mr Jaafir, very sick all over, including lungs and heart. A ventilator had been breathing for him for about a week and it didn’t look like he would be able to get off any time soon. Still, he was mostly awake; when people asked him questions, he was able to write the answers on the paper – the ventilator kept him from talking. During one of my earlier visits, I had run into his large family at the bedside – a younger stylish wife and several verbose sisters, all of them clearly attached to the patient, and eager to pass on his life stories.
The family had told me what the current nurse Marcy did not know – Mr Jaafir had been a chef, and a famous one at that! I had listened as they told me of his famous dishes – the ones that people traveled distances to sample, and were featured in local newspapers and TV shows. Not only was he well known for his restaurant cooking but his home was a central location for the whole neighborhood. I had also learned that being the center of attention had resulted in an interesting life with several marriages and numerous children and grandchildren.
I told all of that to Marcy. She knit her eyebrows for a second to think and then chuckled, “So, Mr Jaafir, this is why you have been banging on the bedrails when the channel was changed?” The patient glared. Having been an authority figure to numerous family members and friends all his life, he did not take kindly to the loss of control. The cooking channel stayed on for the rest of the day. And for Marcy, Mr Jaafir now had an identity apart from being a random patient on the ventilator.
Over the next couple of weeks, the family and friends came and went. Mr. Jaafir stayed opinionated – the bedside table was littered with sheets of paper, his directives with exclamation marks and triple underlines readily visible. However, his strong opinions could not sway his weakened body, and it finally gave up. He knew it before it happened, and his writing changed from “I want to go home” to “let me go”.
I stood at attention with the rest of the staff and his family when his body, covered by the American flag to honor his service to our country, was taken away to the morgue. I had admired the way this man had lived – with a strong sense of self, touching multiple lives on his way, taking care of his family, commanding strong respect in his career. Even more, I admired the way he had died. The formidable sense of self had accomplished a rare feat – retaining his identity while helpless in the ICU. He died as he had lived – strong, surrounded by family, firm in his insistence to choose his own path.
Self-care tip: You are you. Don’t let people change that. Keep your identity.
Question: Have you felt your identity fading in difficult life situations, such as depression, sickness, and/or stress? Tell us your story.