I believe that friendship and conversation are essential ingredients for health.
These are the agencies by which we connect to the world, a connection that allows us to feel loved and respected.
I have been a family doctor in one community for a quarter century. My patients and I know each other through their illnesses, but also from greetings at the grocery store, benefit suppers, soccer games, and funerals. There is a strong sense of bonding that comes from sharing small successes and minor setbacks.
An elderly man came to see me about his diabetes. Aware that I had more than enough time to review his test results, refill medications, and check his heart and lungs, I asked how life was going. With a quick and generous smile, he recounted the recent moose hunt with his son. “Did you get your moose?” I asked. “Sure did, Doc, but I wasn’t much help in hauling him out of the woods.” Then his gaze danced away and tears streamed down his ruddy cheeks.
No amount of prodding or rephrasing could attach a name to my patient’s agony. Now a half-hour behind schedule, I encouraged Delbert to return in a week. When he faithfully returned, we still could not penetrate his murky mood. I asked him if he would join a group of elderly men who were meeting in my office to discuss the challenges of growing older. I didn’t tell him that I had just dreamed up the group, or that his was the first invitation. But he immediately accepted, as did seven others who eventually become the Old Duffers Club.
Over the past year we’ve gathered regularly. Two are widowers. One will sell his stamp collection because of failing eyesight; another must move to be closer to his wife’s family. Still another is coping with disastrous complications from his elective surgery. We talk about the emotions behind the facts of our lives. We are learning to trust one another, joke, and discover a fondness that once seemed so improbable and unnecessary. I have become part of the group, needing what they need, too.
As summer approached, Delbert- who had never traveled more than a hundred miles from his home- made plans with his nephew to visit every western national park in a VW bus.
When I began my medical career, I thrilled at the chance to apply the paddles during a cardiac arrest or deliver a wedged newborn with well-orchestrated maneuvers. Now the miracles are less dramatic, more nuanced and gradual. Though connections are severed by age and illness, they can also be restored through friendship and conversation, even at the end of our lives.
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