Stories about physicians or written by physicians to share the positive side of medicine. Dr. David Anders shared his story last December and I asked to share it with you today. Truly Hippocrates had it correct, " Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity."
First posted-December 18, 2016
In a few hours, my family will gather at the cemetery to bury my 23-year-old niece beside my mother and father. And while every situation is different, similarities do seem to be shared in such circumstances. We, quite naturally, often ask, "Why?" with a deafening silence in response.
I have gained comfort and strength this week thinking about a woman I met and wrote about several years ago. This is her story below. I hope you will have a blessed Sunday-- and Merry Christmas.
We were having a beautiful April day in Georgia, the kind of day that makes it worth bearing the summer heat just to live in an area so beautiful with springtime's azaleas and dogwood blooms. I had seen Mrs. Reeves several times but didn't recall much about her as I reviewed her chart before entering the room. She was an older widow with high blood pressure. We never had much of a discussion before since she was the quiet type, and I had no reason to expect that to change. We reviewed her unremarkable interim medical history since her last appointment. During this visit, I sensed a more pensive tone in her voice, but with her reserved personality, I didn't know just what was different.
So I asked, "Is there anything else that needs attention today?"
"My son died on this date 22 years ago."
"I'm sorry," was the best I could reply, momentarily reeling, caught off-guard by how quickly the tone of the day had just changed, I was stunned by how freely she offered the information. The way that she mentioned it implied there was more to be said. Twenty-two years is a long time, except when measured by the death of a child. She was now 82 years old. She would have been 60 when he died, so he was probably 30 to 40 years old. The most out-of-order I see Nature is when a child dies before a parent, even when the child is an adult. That is a wound that doesn't heal, no matter how much time passes The scar continues to hurt. I do not even try to think things get better for these parents. For them, life will never be the same, even if they live 100 more years.
I knew her memories of the boy she had given birth to and raised, the man who had died, must be more painful today. I have learned that my not asking about him would not make things any less painful for her, just as my talking about him could not increase her suffering. The hurting was already maximal, the thought was already omnipresent.
"How did he die?" I asked, allowing her to tell me something about him, while also realizing that his health history could impact hers.
"He shot himself," she said, flatly, staring at the floor.
I instantly despised this selfish man. How could anyone do such a horrible act? He had condemned her to live the rest of her life wandering as an empty soul, waiting for a relief that only her death would bring. Whatever suffering he had experienced was certainly not as much as she had been made to bear in the 22 years that followed.
After silence enveloped my attempts to decide what to say next, she continued to speak. She told how her only child married later in life then had money problems which created marriage problems. The marriage ended quickly but the money problems did not and he ended his life with a gun. She felt certain her husband, who had always been a nervous person, had died an early death from grieving over their son. He could never bring himself to talk about their loss and began drinking too much,
Her father-in-law hung himself when her husband was a boy, she said, using the term "ironically" as she told her story. Medical science would not describe this as irony, but rather, as being predictable. Anxiety and depression are often inherited disorders. Alcoholism is a maladaptive strategy to cope, a form of self-treatment that can only make matters worse. Fortunately, currently available medications make depression a much less deadly disease. Sadly, her son, his father, and his grandfather did not benefit from therapy, but maybe she could. So I pried more.
"So how do you cope? How did you go on?"
"You don't cope, you just go on. At first, I took medicine for depression, but that didn't change anything for me. I just realized I couldn't bring him back. My eyes don't cry tears anymore. My ophthalmologist says I've used up all my tears. I used to hate spring, with all the painful memories associated with being called by the police, his funeral, the flowers... I got really mad at God. I let Him have it. And He didn't say anything, which made me think I was right. Then one year in spring, at Easter, I came to realize He didn't have to say anything. He had already spoken."
Her voice became more determined as she continued, "I will never understand God, but that's OK. The entire Bible is full of commands about how we should relate to God: fear God, worship God, love God, praise God. But nowhere does it tell us to understand God. So I don't guess we should waste time trying to understand Him at those times that we can't. He knows we can't understand Him. We weren't created to do that. But I have found great comfort realizing that when He wanted to try to explain how much He loves us, how much He cares about us, He chose to do so by describing His love as, by demonstrating it as, the relationship between a parent and a child. He calls us His children, whom we call 'Father'. A parent's love is the greatest, most unwavering, selfless love, we know of, so He explained His love to us in that fashion. And to make things more clear, He sacrificed His Son for our sins. He was willing to lose His child for me," she said with a waver in her voice, but then she added, resolutely, "I don't understand that, but there must be a deep love there. I will choose to believe nothing else. If I believe that, I don't need to believe anything else."
David L Anders, MD