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A Different Vow
By Kate Arnold

(Page 2 of 3)

But the funny moments fade because they showcase how impaired the patients are becoming, and then it’s back to reality.  When I got the job, my boyfriend at the time asked me if I would be able to handle it. It was a valid question and I wasn't sure, but my goal was to learn to handle it and, I hoped, to learn to support patients and families facing Alzheimer’s. I knew the job would make me cry, I knew sometimes I would feel heartbroken, and I knew I would often be emotionally overwhelmed.

And that's been true because just as there are funny moments, there are also powerful moments that grant you more insight than you ever wanted into what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s. Like when Ralph told me Helen woke up disoriented one day, asking when it was time to go to school; and then sat on his lap and cried on his shoulder because she was disoriented and scared. Or a husband who simply stated that within two years, at the age of 54, his wife’s mind will be “shot.”

I never expected to be so emotionally engaged with my patients. When I started the job, I used to say hello and chat congenially; I now hug almost all them. It might seem unprofessional, but I'm not their doctor. My job is to make coming to their study as enjoyable as possible. That’s not my job description, but it's how I do the maximum amount of good. Now I'm invested in my patients’ fights, while knowing they will most likely all lose.

My scariest moment came when I identified fully with one of my patients.  I empathize with all of them. They tell me, after cognitive testing, they they're astounded and terrified at how easy the questions were and how they didn't know the answers. They read books about the progression of Alzheimer's and learn what will happen. But Martha was different; Martha was who I wanted to grow up to be. I would love to be her. She was tan, athletic, casually elegant, and ate healthy foods, but always caved when chocolate was involved. She had the family life I hope to have at her age; she had two grown kids, one granddaughter, and a husband who was in love with her. When I first met her, she was funny, light-hearted, kind, gregarious, and happy; but at 55, she has early onset Alzheimer’s. At her last visit, Martha couldn’t recognize the food on her plate. In the hall, she had trouble following me; and in the bathroom, she couldn’t find the soap or faucet. I’m sure 15 years ago, she thought these would be the best years of her life. She had set herself up for it; it was time for her to travel and spoil her grandkids. Instead, she’s slipping away. I looked at her and I wondered what she would have done if she had known this was coming and I felt overwhelmed. I could be her; this disease can happen to anyone and that’s how I ended up at my mom’s house crying.

My mom and I were watching To Gillian on her 37th Birthday, which is about David, a man whose wife died two years ago, but every night he goes out to the beach where he can talk to her.  Both David and all of my patients and their spouses have been robbed of the future they wanted. My patients and their families are losing the 20 years of vacations, new babies and quality time with each other they had expected to have. And they’re living in a dual reality. The person they love is still right in front of them; and yet, their partnership is ending and every day that person is a little more gone. I cried on the couch and couldn’t breathe for what everyone at work has lost and what they will lose.

 

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