Identity that refused to fade

Identity that refused to fade

“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.

Version 2

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.

Desolation cries for company

Desolation cries for company

There was a new bounce in his step. Mr. Stefani stood a little straighter, and his face expressed an almost smile. Intriguing.

I had treated elderly Mr. Stefani, suffering progressive heart failure, for approximately a year. It was an exercise like table tennis. I told him how important it was to take medications on a regular basis – he kept forgetting. I told him it was important to avoid salt in his diet – he said he was a poor cook and it was easier to heat up instant meals. I told him it was important to get out and be part of social activities – he said he didn’t have a family, and didn’t really care.

“Why care?” he said.

He was sick, and, as he put it,

“What was there to look forward to in the beginning of each day anyway.”

This is a common story. When people develop heart failure, proper food and self-management of the condition is as important as taking correct medications. This may make a difference between being able to manage the disease at home or several hospitalizations in a year, ending up in the nursing home. Elderly patients, especially men, who do not have family support, are faced with a “triple whammy.” There is no-one who cooks proper food for them. Wham! No one reminds them to take their medications. Wham! And no one motivates them to want to live better and longer. Wham! Wham! Wham!

So what had happened to Mr Stefani?

After we went through these preliminaries –

“Have you been more short of breath?”

“No.”

“How much can you walk?”

“About a block.”

“Are you taking your medications?”

“Yes.”

“Are you keeping away from the salt?”

…we finally arrived.

“Yes, much better now,” he announced, “I have a new friend who cooks for me”.

Well, in all fairness he had said, “I have a new girlfriend.” I just interpreted it as a “new friend”. He went on to explain that there was now a young woman in her late 20s living with him, and she had taken over his kitchen and was helping him out in general. Hmmm. I wasn’t sure if I should ask anything further, something along the line of “Where did you find her?” However, Mr Stefani was more than happy to explain.

“I was driving along the road one day, and there she was, standing on the edge of the road. I stopped and asked if she needed a ride. She said she had nowhere to go. I asked if she wanted to come home with me, and she said yes. That’s how it happened.”

My patient seemed happy. His grooming was better. His feet were no longer swollen. I suggested that he bring his new friend to his next appointment.

The next appointment came in 6 weeks. Mr Stefani walked in with a young woman who beamed at me. I started asking questions about his health. Yes, he was feeling a lot better. She proudly presented his medication list. He told me how she was after him to walk every day. She told me how she had changed her Chinese-style cooking to be salt-free. He told me how he helped her look for a job.

There were questions I didn’t ask. Was she really his girlfriend? Was she an illegal immigrant? Was she hiding from someone? What did she get out of this arrangement? Was he paying her?

Looking at the two people in front of me, these questions all of a sudden did not seem so relevant. People at their heart need connections, and those two had found one.

Endless Rhythm by Robert Delaunay

Endless Rhythm, by Robert Delaunay

 

Self-care Tip: Be open to human connections wherever they occur. It may just save a life – yours or someone else’s.

Question: Have you made a connection with a person that was unexpected? Was it challenging? Fruitful? Embarrassing? Eye-opening? Tell us your story.

 

Introducing our new co-author at Friend to Yourself

Finally!

I’ve been hoping, asking, looking, waving awkwardly in the hospital hallways, trying to find someone who would join me in this great blogging experience with you on self-care. And, finally.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Helme Sivet! You will love getting to know her, and she will love, as I do, sharing space with you. Keep on.


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Helme Silvet, MD, MPH, FACC
Loma Linda University School of Medicine
Chief of Cardiology, Jerry L. Pettis VA Loma Linda Healthcare System

Hello!

 

My Blog Journey

Sana (or Dr Q) and I have known each other for two decades or so (and yes, we have lived that long). We have spent hours talking about what makes us excited to be physicians, what gets us up in the morning, and what makes us upset. Finally, we decided that it was time to share some of these thoughts together. Taking care of self is a principle that we both try to teach our patients, but also practice ourselves in order to be effective parts of our families, communities, and humanity. The goal of this blog is to attempt both from the, perhaps, somewhat unique perspective of biology, and medicine as the starting point to self-care.

My Professional Journey

My medical experience started in the “old country” behind the Iron Wall – I grew up in Estonia and graduated from medical school there. After the Soviet Union opened its borders, I made my way to the U.S. and finished an internal medicine residency at Loma Linda University and cardiology fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Lown Cardiovascular Center. Starting in 2003, I have worked at the VA system as a cardiologist. Along the way, I also graduated with an MPH degree from Harvard School of Public Health. I am passionate about making people get better – this includes preventing, treating and managing heart disease as a cardiologist – but also helping my patients make sense of their life journey. One cannot treat and prevent disease without caring for the whole person.

My Life Journey

Between my two sisters and myself, we have lived in 5 different countries – this has made for interesting holidays! Seeing different parts of the world up close has given me plenty of experience, but has also come with a certain sense of displacement. It has been a continuous struggle in my life to figure out where I fit in the wide world in general, and in my little microcosm of a world in particular. In this context, it has been fascinating to learn different things from different cultures, and observe how people with different life experiences can effectively communicate with each other. And I noticed that somewhere along the way, my quest for truth and knowledge is giving way to a quest of understanding and compassion.

Disclaimer

The thoughts on this blog are my own and do not represent entities I belong to in a professional capacity. The stories that I tell are true in principle but the details may have been changed to protect people’s privacy. The blog is not meant to offer professional advice or treatment advice for specific medical conditions; the goal is to share ideas, general principles and stories of a personal journey.