33rd Birthday

If I had to characterize my last year in a few words, it would be "struggle and perspective." From about August to April, I was either applying for jobs or worrying about jobs, and I've already written about how that led me to feel a whole host of negative emotions. The summer months provided me some respite, but now that the job market is starting again, I'm already feeling the anxiety. I imagine that there will be struggle again, though less severe this time around.

My last year has also been characterized by perspective, mainly because of my brief, but direct, exposure to suffering. Since my encounters with the two men in wheelchairs, I've shadowed various doctors at the hospital, including an internist, psychiatrist, palliative doctor, and pediatrician.

On Wednesday (my birthday), I saw two dying patients: an old lady with a brain tumor, and a middle-aged man who had failing lungs. The old lady was somewhat alert; I could tell from her facial expression that she was suffering. It actually reminded me of the expression that my grandma made when she became hospitalized. The middle-aged man was alert and talked about how he wanted to keep living so that he could spend time with his family. He asked about an organ transplant that he needed, but the doctor told him that he wasn't a candidate because of the state of his lungs. He begged the doctor to promise him that he wouldn't let him die. The doctor said he couldn't promise him that but that he would do whatever he could. There was a bible on the desk.

Yesterday I went to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and saw a lot of sick babies. There was one specific baby who, for some reason, suffered massive brain damage. The doctors said that he will never walk, stand, or sit, and that his condition will probably kill him. It's a tragedy that so many babies won't have the chance to experience the good things in life. They won't develop their potential, fall in love, see a sunset, laugh with friends, appreciate music, eat ice cream, dance, travel the world, cuddle with animals, exchange smiles with a stranger, and hear the waves of the ocean. Due to nothing more than an unlucky draw of the natural lottery, they have been condemned to spend their days in a room of a hospital, and to exist mainly in the memories of their families.

Encountering suffering gives you perspective. That one project that you think you have to complete, that one appointment that you think you have to make, you probably don't.

Judgment and People with Mental Illness

I was walking to the hospital the other day to observe a psychiatrist when I noticed a man in a wheelchair sitting on the corner of the intersection. He was wearing the hospital gown and had a number of medical gear attached to his body. I immediately thought that this man had some sort of mental illness and that he had escaped from the hospital. So I walked to the front desk and told the receptionist about the man. He made a phone call and gestured that it was going to be taken care of.

I decided to walk back toward the man to make sure he was going to be alright. But I kept my distance. In fact, I crossed the street so I could see him while being quite far away. The reason why I didn't approach him was because I didn't want to talk to someone with a mental illness.

After a minute or two, I started thinking about how I wanted to avoid him, even though I didn't really consider him to be a threat. This man seemed to be about my age, but he was in a wheelchair, and he had a cast on his foot.

Since I didn't want to treat him like he had a stigma, I decided to talk to him. It turns out that this man hadn't escaped from the hospital but rather that the nurses had let him out, because he wanted to get some fresh air and he wanted to beg. He told me that he had to have one of his toes removed, which is why he was wearing the cast, and that prior to the surgery, he had been bedridden for months.

We talked about a number of things in the 10 minutes we spoke. I asked him about a tattoo he had on his neck. He said it was his nephew's name. He then pointed to another one of his niece's name.

I asked him if he had anyone to come pick him up. He said no.

Then he asked me for money, so I gave him 5 bucks. (I've noticed that it's much easier to give someone money after you connect with them, probably because connecting with someone humanizes them.)

He was very grateful and offered to buy me lunch in the future. I said it was generous of him but that it was unnecessary.

What this experience shows is that I don't want to talk to people with mental illness, and that I'm quick to judge someone as having such a condition, if I observe that they behave oddly. This suggests that I need to withhold my judgment.

Old Man in a Wheelchair

A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting at a traffic light when I noticed this old man in a wheelchair having trouble getting off a bus. It was the end of my day and I had no further obligations, so I decided to see if he needed some help.

I pulled my car over to the side, walked up to him, and asked him if he wanted me to help him get home. He said, “Yes.” I asked him if he knew where he lived. He said, “Yes.” He lived only a few blocks away from me.

So I pushed him across the main street and bid him farewell, because we were only a couple of blocks away from his apartment. He thanked me and offered to say a Catholic prayer.

After I drove back and parked my car, I decided to return to where I had left him, because I wasn't sure if he was going to get home safely. I offered to push him all the way to his apartment, and he accepted.

While pushing him, I noticed that his wheelchair didn’t have footrests. I asked him why and he said that someone had stolen them.

I learned some things about the man while we talked. I learned that he was 71, that he recently had cataract surgery, and that he recently needed to be resuscitated. By connecting this information with the information I gathered through observation, I concluded that he had just returned from the hospital.

After pushing him into the lobby of his apartment building, I again bid farewell and he again offered to say a Catholic prayer.

This experience left an impression on me for a few reasons.

First, I was extremely disappointed and disheartened to hear that people steal parts of wheelchairs.

Second, this man reminded me of my dad. My dad is almost 71 and also recently had cataract surgery. It made me think that if my dad were to have an accident, he could easily end up like this man, who seemed at least 10 years older than what he really was.

And third, it was depressing to know that nobody picked him up from the hospital. I can only assume that he was also there by himself. How lonely of an existence it must be to have no one by your side in what may be your last moments of life.