I believe in visiting the sick. I believe it when nurses tell me that visitors make a difference. I’m no longer surprised when I hear stories about patients who have faced life threatening illness virtually alone.
Last spring my friend Peter had his world turned upside down when a mysterious abdominal pain landed him in the hospital. Days later he learned that an aggressive form of cancer had spread throughout his body. Months into chemotherapy, Peter developed a neurological condition that paralyzed his limbs, distorted his voice, and compromised his breathing. Before long, this former high school athlete and Navy sailor came to resemble a survivor of Auschwitz.
I believe what the rabbis of the Talmud taught, that every person who visits the sick takes away one sixtieth of his suffering. I may not have been able to cure Peter’s cancer, but I could get blankets for him when he was cold, wipe his forehead with a wet cloth when he had night sweats, and fetch the nurse when he needed changing or more pain medication.
If patients are like exiles in a foreign country, visitors are like ambassadors from the homeland. As a visitor, I could bring Peter his favorite ice cream, and Frappuccinos from Starbucks. We could share movies together on a portable DVD player. I could listen to the plans he was making for the future, like snorkeling in Maui.
I was there when the oncologist said those sweet, wonderful words, “You’re in remission.” And I cheered Peter on as he gradually regained movement in his limbs and, with the help of his physical therapists, balanced himself on the edge of his bed for the first time in months. Being present with Peter, I could say, without saying it in words: You matter. You’re valued. You are not forgotten.
My friends became concerned when they saw me spending so many hours everyday at the hospital. He’s not your responsibility, they’d say. Let his family take care of him. The truth is: Peter had few visitors. He wasn’t married or part of a tighly knit community of friends and relatives. Twenty-four seven is a lot of time to spend alone in a hospital bed, and cancer never takes a day off or vacation. I wasn’t going to let Peter languish through this illness alone, not on my watch.
By Thanksgiving it became clear that Peter would never make that trip to Maui. The movement in his limbs disappeared. A new tumor had taken hold of his spine. The doctors now spoke of palliative care instead of recovery. Many times I wanted to run away, but I kept coming back, feeding him ice cream, letting him squeeze my hand, watching him sleep. Peter died before the sun could rise on Pearl Harbor Day. I believe it was not my burden, but my privilege, to accompany this young man, at the age of 26, through the last remaining hours of his abbreviated life.
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