I believe in asking my patients questions I once thought were too personal to broach. When I was in medical school the veterans at the VA Hospital seemed so ill. It was difficult to imagine them as young healthy men serving their country in WW2. I considered asking them about their service but thought it would be unprofessional. I didn’t think they wanted to talk about war, loss and suffering while they were sick and in the hospital. I thought it was an intrusion into a past they didn’t want to remember.
Many years later, I was admitting an 80 year old man to the hospital. He had a severe tremor and couldn’t feed himself because of the uncontrollable shaking of his hands. A neurosurgeon had implanted a brain stimulator and the tremor improved to the point that he could feed himself. The stimulator worked great except, it caused a weakness in his swallowing muscles. He had developed pneumonia because of that debility. He seemed so old and frail; his body was deteriorated and thin from his multiple maladies all except his big blue eyes. They sparkled despite his fever.
I had some extra time before my shift was up so I sat down on the bed. We talked about his kids, grand kids and great grandkids. Then I asked him…What did you do during the war? His answer left me in awe of him. He had arrived in France shortly after D-Day. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and sustained a relatively minor leg injury. He was transferred to Third Army Headquarters where he did clerical work. He worked directly for General Patton! He earned a Purple Heart and a bronze star. During our conversation he had transformed he now shone as much as his eyes. He was again that young twenty year old boy, full of life and possibilities.
Emboldened by his revelation, I began to ask many of my elderly patients about their war experiences. I discovered one of my patients was a navigator on a bomber. He flew 25 runs over Germany. He had been shot down twice, once behind enemy lines. He too, had a handful of medals to his credit.
Last night I admitted a very ill man with many problems. He’s been in and out of the hospital all summer. He is weak and fragile. He had been an army prisoner of war for 11 months in the Philippines. After he was liberated, he was discharged from the Army. He went home. Immediately, he enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific and in Korea. He had earned a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a silver star. This time he won’t be going home. He is dying.
What little I’ve been able to do for him to relieve his suffering doesn’t come close to what I’ve gained in getting to know him. This I believe: If I don’t ask I’ll never know just who is lying in the bed in front of me.
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