1. Bair, Henry


A patient's mysterious (and infectious) hope gives her meaning and seems to bolster her strength.


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I first met Gloria during a late shift on an inpatient clerkship. An elderly woman with metastatic ovarian cancer, Gloria was already small in stature before her illness, and by the time we met, she seemed tiny. Despite this, she had a bright smile and most of the time her eyes were engaging and present. She had outlived our expectations multiple times. In fact, her medical team was somewhat baffled by her relative vigor.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Janet Hamiln.

Gloria also had mild cognitive impairment, though it hadn't worsened since her hospitalization and it was unclear how long she'd been living with intermittent disorientation and lapses. It was the cancer and the resultant treatment that had disabled her and resulted in her hospitalization, not her cognitive issues.


But rather than dwelling on her condition, Gloria was focused on something entirely different.


"I'm waiting for Jerry, of course," she said to me with a chuckle when I marveled at how stabilized her condition appeared to be.




"Yes," She nodded cheerfully. "The love of my life. He knows about all this, knows I'm unwell. He'll be coming as soon as he's able." She settled back into her pillows. "It's terribly hard for him to get here, but he's coming to visit. He'll be here as soon as he can." Her eyes closed, a peaceful smile on her face.


Members of the medical team were well aware of Jerry's apparently imminent arrival, and there was some consternation as to what we might face if he came too late, after she passed. We all were a little smitten with the idea of Jerry. Gloria had no visitors and didn't speak much of family or friends. Gloria, it seemed, was alone. So, we were glad she had someone to anticipate. I started to wonder if maybe Jerry didn't know how short Gloria's time was and suggested to a resident that perhaps we could locate him and let him know the urgency of her situation.


I called her former skilled nursing facility. They weren't sure about anyone named Jerry, but they suggested trying Gloria's previous adult care apartment complex and gave me the name. Those folks didn't know Jerry either, but they did say there was a specific man who frequently came to visit Gloria over lunch or dinner, or a game of bunco. She also had been an active member of a church for many years, and they gave me the name. Over the course of several days, I played phone tag with various administrators until finally the pastor himself left me a voice mail saying that Gloria had indeed been married to a man named Jerry and that they had started living separately when he could no longer care for her at home. Jerry had continued to visit her regularly at the home for some time, but no one could quite remember the last time they had seen him or why he had stopped coming. No one knew where he lived or his last name. But keeping Gloria alive to see Jerry one last time became a rallying point for our team.


Visiting hours on Gloria's floor ended at eight. One quiet evening after most of us had already left, the night nurse on duty heard a voice coming from Gloria's room. Alarmed, she hurried down the hall to see who had managed to squeeze by security. She told us later that as she got closer, she could hear Gloria happily addressing someone as Jerry. The nurse slowed down and stood just outside the door, peering inside. Gloria was sitting up, gesturing and speaking animatedly toward the far side of her bed.


But there was no one else in the room.


Our nurse watched for the better part of 15 minutes as Gloria carried on a delighted conversation with her interlocutor, and then she quietly retraced her steps down the hall and left our patient to her exchange.


The next morning, Gloria passed away quietly.


As soon as I had the chance, I searched for more clues. Eventually, I found the obituary for a Jerome Chadwick, beloved husband of a Gloria Hunter, dated several years before Gloria had ever been hospitalized. It struck me that Gloria-even though to my knowledge she had never had a visitor-seemed more optimistic and brighter than many of our other patients, as if her conviction that she would see Jerry again before she died gave her a resiliency that sustained her for far longer than anyone predicted. I marveled at how striving for the fulfillment of a last wish, a closure of sorts, gave her a remarkably purposeful existence, even in the last stages of a terminal disease.


Certainly, there is no underestimating the power of meaning to bolster individuals and the power of meaninglessness to sap them of the will to go on.