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Sunday, February 8, 2015

"How Are YOU?"

 I don't typically like to complain much.

But sometimes, on rare occasions....things just get to me.

 I have observed a few individuals during my life who are generally healthy people. They are fairly normal, nice people...but when they get sick, they completely cease to function.

Do you know anyone like that? They get a common cold, a sinus infection, the flu, or some other minor illness. Suddenly, life comes to a grinding halt. They call in sick to work, they refuse to get out of bed, the house doesn't get cleaned, the kids need to be cared for by someone else, and meanwhile, they check out of life completely. The focus turns completely inward.

I am always amazed when I see this, and it gets me thinking about my own life as an MS patient. The concept of becoming utterly non-functional due to minor illness is laughable to MS patients. We just do not have that option, do we? If we chose to "check out" every time we felt the least bit unwell, we would stop living entirely. Getting up, getting out of bed, carrying on for the sake of others is something we learn to do quickly with a chronic illness. A chronic, incurable disease is one of the greatest ways to learn to turn our focus outward.

I will give you an example of what I am referring to; a real-life, living example of what this concept truly means. For many years, I worked with a fellow nurse in the emergency department. This woman was a veteran ER nurse and lifelong paramedic. She continued to work both in the hospital, as well as on an advanced life support ambulance until she was well into her fifties. During the final years of her career, she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. She was given 18 months to live upon diagnosis, yet she continued to work full time in the ER for 6 years after she was diagnosed.

This woman dragged herself to work on days that she must have been in pain, exhausted, and feeling very ill. I watched her, year by year, continue to care for others while she was dying. She continually and effortlessly put other's needs before her own. She was one of the toughest, most determined people I have ever met, and I spent years in awe of her strength and perseverance.

My husband and I both worked with this woman for many years, and the last time my husband saw her, she was on hospice, at the very end of her life. She was finally forced to stop working, and her pain medications were not quite cutting it one night. She came into the ER for some relief for her agonizing pain, and my husband walked in the room to see her. She was in the bed, frail and rocking with her eyes closed, suffering tremendously. My husband said to her, "How are you doing?" She opened her eyes to see who was speaking, and realized it was my husband in the room. Her words to him were not, "I need medications," or "I am in terrible pain." Her words to him were immediately: "How are YOU?" 

This small phrase epitomizes the concept of turning outward, rather than inward. Focusing on others, rather than on oneself. This is the ultimate selflessness, and it is a characteristic I have seen over and over again from terminally ill, or very sick people. The ability to see that our own issues are not the top priority is a gift. These are the people who are angels in life, in my opinion. This is a lesson for every single human being.

Those who have never experienced serious illness just do not understand the concept. Calling in sick to work, ceasing to function, and using minor illness as an excuse to check out of life is not something we have the option to do. We must carry on, struggle, overcome, and persevere. If I ever find that I am feeling sorry for myself, all I do is think of my old friend and coworker. Those few simple words summarizing the ultimate unselfish mindset....

How are YOU?

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