Rich’s Chance Encounter with Dr.Van Eden
In 1984, my brother Rich was a veteran, living independently in a handicap-accessible apartment in Central Florida. At age 21, he had been paralyzed from the neck down. He lived, by choice, in a manner that few quadriplegics do: by himself without nursing assistance, no family within 1500 miles, and not even an aide looking in on him every few days.
It was not an ideal living situation, but he did amazingly well. He wheeled himself (electric was not acceptable to him) to the village (a mile away!) about once a week for supplies, which he carried in his back pack for the trip home. He fixed himself meals, he read insatiably, he watched corny comedies; he talked to family and friends on the phone. He visited with neighbors, he kept a diary. He got by. All this while confined to a wheelchair, without the use of his fingers, only partial use of his arms, and no feeling from the chest down.
On one of my visits, he showed me a nasty burn on his arm that had been festering for a while. He refused to go to a doctor’s office or the hospital. He feared he would be admitted and never get out. His idea: he would go to a doctor’s office, but he would refuse to get out of the van. The doctor would have to come out and see his wound and would naturally agree to give him an antibiotic. I agreed to his terms. Armed with the telephone directory and a local map, we drove from doctor’s office to doctor’s office. Most receptionists would not even relay my request to the doctors.
Totally shut down by six private medical practices in the city, Rich came up with Plan B: ask Pharmacists for help. We went from Pharmacy to Pharmacy, the drill always the same: I would walk in and explain the situation: “Fearful quadriplegic in the van in need of antibiotic, can you help?” After four hours of failure, Rich reluctantly agreed: we could go to the hospital but the caveat was the same: if they would not come to the van, it was a no deal.
As we approached hospital, Rich had a nerve-induced gastro-intestinal episode. As a quadriplegic, he didn’t have the early warning system that we do. His shame over his bowels’ uncontrollable fight or flight response contributed to his insistence that he would not exit the van.
I left Rich in the van while I went in to the emergency room. The attendant was not sympathetic; if Rich wanted care, he should come in; sorry, but there was nothing she could do.
As they say, timing is everything. At that very moment, an emergency room physician was a) not otherwise engaged; b) was within hearing distance of my conversation with the attendant; and c) was willing to take a chance. He agreed to see Rich on Rich’s terms.
His name was Dr. Van Eden. He had a charming accent and without hesitation, he strode with me to the van, where the introductions were made. Dr. Van Eden stepped into the van and squatted down to be at eye level to talk to Rich.
“You’re hurting, aren’t you, mate?” he asked. There was no indication that he noticed that the van was anything but springtime fresh.
Rich extended his bicep-working, tricep-deficient, paralyzed fingered arm in an effort to shake hands with the first person in an entire afternoon that had given so much as a nod to his plight.
Dr. Van Eden looked at Rich’s nasty burn, then looked Rich straight in the eye. “You have an infection that I am sure is into your bone. I want to help you. But, I need you to come inside. I will not make you stay.”
At that very moment, my guess is that Rich would have gone to the ends of the earth, and taken up residence, had the man asked him to do so. True to his word, Dr. Van Eden cared for Rich and his wound, and let him go. The wound was, indeed, very serious. Dr. Van Eden gave him an antibiotic shot in the hospital and prescribed additional antibiotic for ten days.
Rich recovered from that infection. Understandably, the human who had listened, and cared, made all the difference. Understandably, he was a hero in Rich’s eyes, and mine, as well.
I had spent that day, agreeing to Rich’s requirements, knowing that no medical professional would come to a parking lot to see an unknown patient. Yet, I had agreed, knowing this: Rich had lost control of his life when he lost control of his limbs at the age of 21. Understandably, he was clinging to whatever control he could wield. My hope had been that Rich would change his mind about “how” he would see a doctor and would acquiesce to the requirements of the “system” after a few stops. My unspoken predictions of failure were realized again and again throughout the day.
Then, Dr. Van Eden surprised us.
I visited Rich often as he continued to live independently in the following years. On one of those visits, he met me at the door with the local newspaper. The headline: “Local Emergency Room Physician Arrested.”
According to the story, Dr. Van Eden was an imposter. He had come to the States from South Africa with phony credentials. He was not a physician at all.
I looked at Rich, and we both burst out laughing. “Dr.” Van Eden had listened when no one else would. He had treated a man in need when no one else would. He cared when the rules and requirements said he shouldn’t. He walked to a parking lot and got in a hot, unpleasant van, reeking of the odor of uncontrollable fear, and squatted to be eye to eye with a man who was unable to stand to greet him. He stated what he would do, and he did it.
In the moment of time that we needed him, “Dr. Van Eden was more of a doctor than we could even have hoped for.
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