Saturday, July 12, 2008

Blinded by the silver lining

As I've mentioned before, some people seem to be much more willing to open up to you about their medical details when they hear you're a medical student. Often this involves unpleasant details, such as elaborate depictions of fungating lesions and uncontrollable bodily functions. Once in a while, though, I get a response I don't expect.

I was at a coffee shop a couple weeks back - to relax, not refuel, unlike during the school year - and was served by a cashier whose competence at baristing I immediately called into question. After she dropped a few things, had difficulty counting out my change, and made something other than what I ordered, I admittedly made some silent judgments about her intelligence too, which I assumed were related to the lack of natural pigment in her hair.

It was a slow day, and so when I went to return my dish before I left, she started making conversation. "You're a student around here you said? What are you studying?" "I'm taking medicine," I replied, and braced myself for the "Oh, let me show you this rash" or something of the sort.

"Oh, neat, do you know much about Alzheimer's disease?" she asked. "My dad has had that for the last seven years or so. It's pretty interesting, isn't it, with the tau protein deposits and the beta amyloid plaques, and all that."

I think my jaw noticeably dropped. She wasn't so blonde after all!

She went on to impress me with the other things she had learned about the disease, and talked about how she had moved in with her dad to take care of him when he got considerably worse, so that he wouldn't have to go to an old age home. She had left her job as an accountant and found the coffee shop gig which didn't require her 9-5; that way, she could spend more time with him.

Alzheimer's is a terrible disease. Many people get upset as it ravages the cognizance of their loved ones, feeling as though they can only stand by helpless as the person they love is taken away from them, a bit at a time, leaving an empty shell of the personality they once knew. Some even choose to not deal with the stress of the disease by moving their parents to an old age home and not bother visiting.

With this in mind, I asked, "that must have been difficult, I imagine, watching him change so much over the years?"

Her response to that question surprised me even more.

"No, no! It's the best thing that could have happened. You see, as he loses more of his memory, he's been becoming more and more like a child. Now we hang out and make jokes and play in the backyard like kids, and have so much fun. If it were a heart attack or a stroke that took him, then it would be instantaneous - I wouldn't have the chance to say goodbye. This way, though, it's been slow... and so I have had many years to accept that he'll no longer be with me soon, and I've been able to say goodbye."

Not only did I learn once again to not judget a book by its cover, but I also got the chance to see someone who embodied the "acceptance" phase of grief more than I had ever seen before. Perhaps it was because I was expecting her experience to be the same as the others I'd heard of, that she was full of anger at the situation because she had to watch this disease degrade her father to the point that he now is fully dependent on support from others. Instead, she embraced it. The amount of positivity she had for a disease so ruthless was truly inspiring.


Future Doc said...

When given lemons, make lemonade!

Great post though, I think anyone would have made those assumptions at first but it definitely a good lesson.

Dragonfly said...

Wow!! It is funny how some of the seemingly most difficult situations can bring families together.
And drinking coffee to relax, not to refuel is so much preferable...

Government Funded Blogger said...

An inspirational story.thank you for that.

Anonymous said...


And I'm sitting here wondering what other great loss she must have gone through earlier at some point to prepare her to be able to handle this one so well now. Truly, she has chosen to cheerfully learn the lessons offered up by life.

Ms-Ellisa said...

That was beautiful.

Imagine how life- affirming she must be...