My last post detailed a typical visit to a patient named Ted, an eighty-four year old man I saw twice a day for over a year. Ted lived alone in a run-down unit, due for demolition, and had such severe short-term memory loss that within the course of a visit he could tell the same story multiple times. Luckily Ted retained his long-term memories, and, even luckier for me, the stories he told were so interesting it was no burden to hear them repeated.
As nurses we assisted Ted by administering his medications, ensuring he was having something to eat, moisturising his legs, and occasionally dressing any wounds he developed. We also gave the solitary man company, and, uniquely, Ted gave back. Some days it was hard to tell who was accompanying whom.
Ted was a joy. Normally seeing a client this often, particularly one who offers up the same conversation like a meal repeated until you’re sick of the sight of it, would become wearisome, but Ted was so genuinely happy, and so sharing in his happiness, that visiting him felt like recharging. Each rendition he gave of his stories was animated and energetic. His jokes, which after a few months I could mouth along with him, were always delivered with such sincere amusement and enjoyment that it was impossible not to laugh with him.
I was moved from the area where Ted lived and began nursing further north, and my visits with Ted were cut off. It was a different nurse who got to hear about the time his car broke down on a set of train tracks and was hit, with Ted still in the car, by a train. Ted walked away from the accident, went to get a beer at a nearby pub to steady his nerves, and decided the car was probably a wreck, and so hitchhiked his way home. True story. I heard it at least seventy-eight times.
A few months ago I found out Ted was no longer on our books. Ted has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is a fancy way of saying his lungs are shot. He spent his early adulthood chewing on cigars, sucking on cigarettes, and even having the odd puff of a pipe. His later adulthood was spent working in a pottery factory at a time when OH & S didn’t include face masks, and so, even though he had quit smoking, the deterioration of his respiratory system continued with lungful after lungful of ceramic dust. Because of his COPD, Ted was particularly prone to chest infections, which made him particularly prone to hospital admissions. And so the decision was made by his case manager that Ted wasn’t safe to be living alone and a nursing home was arranged. This meant district nurses were no longer required.
The abrupt departure of a patient is an aspect of my job I find disorientating. Let me set the stage: we go into the intimate confines of a person’s home, are welcomed and offered tea. We administer care, which by its nature creates a bond between patient and nurse. We talk as we work, and learn about out patient’s lives and families. Then, as inevitably happens, one day they’re gone.
Sometimes it’s due to death, but more often it’s that they’ve been put into a nursing home. Or gone to live with family. Or are in hospital. The latter is the hardest because they disappear into the hospital system and it’s not until months later that you realise they haven’t returned and are left wondering what happened to them.
District nurses are, at best, a band-aid. We are a temporary fix, and the best we can hope to achieve is to maintain the status quo for a while longer until health deterioration catches up with our patients. Please don’t let this observation cheapen the profession. Those extra few years we buy our clients at home are years of comfort in a familiar environment, but it’s still frustrating to know we are a quick, and non-lasting, solution.
So Ted had disappeared into that world of post-district nursing, but because of where he had lived I still found myself driving past his unit most days. (Despite his absence, the demolition has yet to commence). And each day I was reminded of the man and what an incredible life he had led. I would remember the story of how, on an impulse, he quit his job in New South Wales and travelled to Melbourne with a friend to visit his friend’s aunty. And how, six months later, he married his friend’s aunty. She was twenty years his senior and initially refused to marry him, stating that he could stay until he was bored with her. Ted was outraged at the suggestion that he wouldn’t make an honest woman of her and slept on the couch until their marriage day.
And I remembered how, twenty years on, his wife had a stroke and, mentally, reverted back to an infant. And how Ted fed her, and washed her, and cared for her whilst she called him “Mum,” until the day she died.
An encomium is a tribute, either spoken or in text, to a person and their accomplishments. My previous post set out to capture just a slice of what it was like to know Ted. To immortalise a fraction of a fraction of his life, but one that demonstrated his humour, and his vitality, and his kindness. To protect and praise a man who had done some incredible things but who had been largely forgotten by the community he lived in.
Ted will undoubtedly have no memory of me and the small part I played in his story, but hopefully these posts will preserve my memories of Ted and the part he played in mine.