IN MY PATIENT Charlene's room, the vase on her nightstand held a bunch of pink roses. Throughout the 3 years we'd been caring for her in our Alzheimer's unit, her husband Lou had always made sure she had fresh roses in her room. But these roses were fading fast.
Charlene held out her hand and called, "Lou, Lou, let's go. Let's go, Honey!!" While I grasped her hand, I thought, It's not like Lou to let his wife's roses become so withered.
When he first brought Charlene to us, Lou was heartsick, but he finally accepted that everyone on the staff would do everything possible to keep Charlene comfortable and happy. He often asked me, "Say, Ron, would Charlene still receive the same wonderful care if I were to pass off the scene?" And I'd always assure him, "Yes, Lou, she'd still receive the same wonderful care."
At that time, none of us thought that Lou would die first. When he was 80, he kept a pace that most 20-year-olds would envy.
But one day, when I'd innocently asked, "How are you?" I could tell I'd struck a nerve.
"Well, Ron, not too well," he said tearfully. "My doctor was concerned about some breathing problems I was having. So I had some tests done. My doctor just told me today that I have lung cancer."
Before I knew it, this man was pouring out his heart to me and I was near tears too. Lou had always been so upbeat; it seemed strange to see his usual smile replaced with tears. I found myself praying with him.
Lou started undergoing chemo and radiation therapy. Each time he visited, he looked worse. He lost most of his hair and needed supplemental oxygen. He could no longer drive, but his kind physician drove him 30 miles each week to visit Charlene.
Finally, Lou decided to stop the treatments. "If I'm going to die anyway, I might as well go with what little hair I do have left on my head," he told the nursing staff. Admiring his spunk, we all laughed.
After that, he seemed to regain a great deal of his health and was even strong enough to drive himself to visit Charlene. Looking and feeling better, Lou was slowly becoming his old self. We were all fooled into believing that he was making a comeback.
But in a few short months, his health waned. Then, the day after I'd noticed the fading roses in Charlene's room, I saw Lou's obituary in the newspaper.
It's funny just how little you know about a person until he passes away. I'd never known that Lou had graduated from The Citadel and served in the army during World War II. I hadn't known that he'd sold real estate in civilian life. And I'd never imagined that, at one time, he was on the governor's staff in South Carolina.
I also discovered that neither Lou nor Charlene had any living relatives, except for Lou's sister who lived in a long-term-care facility in another state. Little wonder that no one but Lou ever came to visit Charlene.
Sometimes we read just a few pages in the lives of those we know and love. Meeting Lou was like opening a book to the last chapter and reading to the end. Now I wished he'd shared more of his story with me.
Although there was so much about Lou that I didn't know, I knew one thing for certain: His first and last concern was for his wife. I could still hear him ask me, "Would Charlene still receive the same wonderful care if I were to pass off the scene?"
And every day as we take care of Charlene, we answer him with our actions: "Yes, Lou, she's still receiving the same wonderful care, and she always will."