A short while ago a patient of mine died after a long struggle with Huntington's disease. Here I tell the uplifting story about him and the last four years of his life. This story would not have been the same -- for him or for me -- without Elizabeth, our mutual and ordinary/extraordinary friend.
The Story Begins: During the latter years of my patient's illness he had fallen on hard times and turned to alcohol. He was estranged from family, and trusted no one. He spent too many days in bars and too many nights out on the streets. He was in and out of shelters when there was room and food. Near the end of his days on the street he sought refuge in a portable toilet.
Then about 4 years ago his luck changed. On a rainy and cold night on her way to a local restaurant, a woman walked by my soon-to-be patient sitting in the doorway of an adjacent shop. She had seen him in this neighborhood before, when he had seemed angry and threatening. However on this night, when she walked past him again later on her way back to her car, she could see that he was very thin and looked sick.
After a few minutes debating with herself, she walked back to this homeless man, asking if he was hungry. To which he replied "yes", and that he really would like a pizza with everything on it from a shop around the corner, "extra cheese, no olives". After getting the requested pizza, she delivered it to him, but she didn't leave immediately. Instead she patiently stood there silently for several uncomfortable moments till he introduced himself. They exchanged names, and then after several more uncomfortable minutes of silence while waiting to eat, he asked if she'd be back next week. "Yes" she said and went to her car and drove away.
Then next week, at the same time and place, she was there with his pizza.
The Story Continues: For the next four years as his trust for her grew, this woman became his advocate and a true friend. She soaked up all the information she could find about Huntington's disease. She helped get him off the street and into an Adult Care Family Home. She convinced him to allow medical attention and brought him to see me. And though his disease progressed and his last years were not easy; they were some of the best years of his life because he had a friend who helped him through. A friend that brought diverse gifts from warm socks to cigarettes to reuniting him his his nieces and cousins. Each respected the other, and they enjoyed the others' company,
She made all the difference.
Ordinary or Extraordinary? Over the years as I watched this mutually caring relationship evolve, I learned things about both my patient and his advocate and friend Elizabeth, who has since become my friend.
From my patient, I learned that even at his end-stage of Huntington's disease, his mind could grow and change, he could learn to trust again, make a new friend, and be a true friend. He early on accepted rules she set, and though he kept his own opinions, he respected, trusted and he complied with her rules. And over time, he increasingly gave of himself. opening up with stories of his life. And no matter what the weather, and as long as he physically could, he always looked forward to and enjoyed their occasional excursions. When he could no longer go out, he would smile when she came. And with her there, his dying was not as hard.
From Elizabeth, I watched and learned about how to live a more beautiful life. Her answer to me when I asked her why she had befriended my patient? "Because anyone can help just one other person." Of course, as I would learn later, This good lady has helped a lot more than just one other person. She has helped many homeless persons in Seattle for a lot of years. However, the important point she was making was that an ordinary person can help just one other person. It shouldn't be extraordinary.
Imagine what a different and wonderful world it would be if every person helped one other.