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November 27, 2011

Vigil as a Sacred Act

I was lucky enough to find a family doctor on Salt Spring.  I got in on the ground floor of the opening of a new medical clinic called The King's Lane Medical Clinic (which is a great place with a web site that I find completely offensive in its choice of colour and design.)

The office is actually a two-storey dormer style house where 5 G.P.s and several other visiting specialists who come to island on a regular/monthly basis offer their services.

An extremely gentle, small black dog greets you as you arrive. I think there's even a gurgling fountain in one corner at the back. The magazines are really high quality, one that I especially liked related to art in New Mexico. It was very pleasant and my G.P. was approachable, efficient, and a pretty good communicator who seemed really competent. What do I know?

Now, I know it's not fair to compare a sleepy little Gulf Island like Salt Spring Island to Surrey, the fastest growing municipality in B.C., but to put things in perspective, I have never in 50 years been to a doctor's office that looked like the one I saw 2 weeks ago when I was following up on something for my poor 93-year-old father.

First of all, it's a crime that any 93-year-old should be going to a walk in medical clinic but his doctor retired and he should have changed doctors immediately and didn't. If the waiting room at that horrible medical clinic wasn't a big wake up call, I had no idea how much worse it could get until I stepped into Emergency at Surrey Memorial Hospital. It's like a third world country there except they have the supplies and the expertise. Apparently in 2013 (way too far away), they'll have a new emergency as well which will immediately be too small again one assumes but in a more accommodating way.

My dad sat upright in a chair for 8 hours and then got transferred to a bed in the Rapid Assessment Unit which was jam packed with people and the gurneys were a foot apart. At one point I was standing between his bed and the bed that held a tiny little East Indian woman who was sitting up and wouldn't lie down. She didn't speak English. She was blind. She had dementia and her family wasn't there. It was the definition of hell.

He stayed on that gurney for 4 days before being transferred to an ad hoc Emergency overflow on the third floor staffed by Emerg nurses who had never worked up there, didn't have all the supplies, and weren't familiar with the unit. Some were able to hide their frustration and remain professional, a few weren't.

Finally, on the fifth day he was transferred to a two-person room where he has remained for 10 days now and  he is now being given palliative care.

I've watched my mother take her last breath. I've seen my father who was exceptionally healthy until he was about 92 and took a serious fall on one of his Forrest Gump walks, decline very quickly in the past month, and I was the overnight caregiver on Salt Spring for 7 months for an 84-year-old who had a stroke. So, here are a few insights, nothing momentous, just my own.

  • You've got one life. It's yours and nobody else's, even if you're married. So, do whatever your inner voice is telling you to do even if your friends or your partner or your dog think you're crazy and don't agree with you. Stop talking about it. Do something different or put your energy into fixing where you're at. Look in the mirror. It's about you, not anyone else, especially if you're not happy. Stop blaming your wife, your kids, your boss, your parents or anyone but the person staring back.
  • Real wealth exists in your breath, your physical and mental health, your wisdom, your integrity and your consciousness. All that material stuff somebody will have to clear out once you're dead, is just that: replaceable.  Friends. Family. They matter.
  • You will need an advocate when you get old if your family is nowhere to be found or, like me,  you have no children, especially daughters. A lot of people are going to need health advocates when they become incapacitated, temporarily or permanently. It's a whole new area of growth waiting to be mined but requiring individuals with the highest of integrity so as not to take advantage.
  • There is no such thing as "lots of time." But, at the same time, "Don't panic," she laughs as she is panicking.
  • If you have yet to experience a "vigil" at the bedside of a dying person, you have not experienced getting a glimpse into human fragility as a quick route to softening your heart. Unless you die instantly, you will age and become vulnerable and fragile and dependent in some way. It's a given. If you're one of those people saying, Oh god, I hope I never end up like that, you need to get a grip. Having been at the bedside of both parents who were exceedingly healthy individuals, it WILL probably happen to you too if your death isn't sudden. Seeing someone fade away and become dependent changes your approach to your present and your future. I highly recommend it as a reality check. 
  • I'm a slow learner. It has taken me way too long in this lifetime to figure out what really matters - to me - and in general. 
  • Death is a very sacred time.  I would honestly feel like I had missed out on a significant part of LIFE had I not spent any time beside my parents' bedsides and been there for them when they most needed me.

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