Ordinary people experiencing extraordinary challenges

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen June 11, 2002
Original Title: Hero Worship

How patients and health care providers handle illness can be a source of inspiration for many. Their stories are seldom told. Bad news tends to pique our interest more so than good. Many of these people are true heroes.

What is a hero? It can depend on your point of reference, your age or areas of interest. Physicians, nurses and other health care providers have the privilege of meeting truly inspirational people. They come from all walks of life. In the face of adversity of the gravest order, they find an inner strength to conquer it. They are ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges. They provide the fuel for the adage, ãIf they can do it, so can I!ä The patient stories that follow represent some of the courage and fear many face daily.

William, 57, has a strong family history of heart disease and is a walking time bomb. He is obese, has type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, early kidney failure and hypertension. He takes six different medications. Despite the overwhelming nature of these combined conditions he decides to take control of his life. Registering for the Optifast program at the Ottawa Civic Hospital he loses over 70 pounds within a year. His diabetes no longer requires medication, his kidney function is improving and the weight loss continues.

In November 2001, Daniel, age 16, caught Mono (Mononucleosis). His spleen enlarged (splenomegaly) curtailing his active lifestyle. He recovered after a couple of months. This May he developed a severe headache with nausea and vomiting. Within a week he was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU). An extremely rare complication of Mono caused his spinal cord to swell leaving him paralyzed. Weakened respiratory muscle function made it difficult for him to breathe. At last report he is moving his legs and is breathing more easily. The expectation is he will recover slowly. All he wants to do is leave the hospital and resume his life.

Claire, 82, needed a hip replacement. She endured excruciating pain despite the use of strong pain-killers (analgesics). They were constipating further adding to her grief. Unable to walk more than 25 feet at a time using a cane, hobbled and unable to enjoy the activities of daily life, she was on the brink of throwing in the towel. The waiting list for surgery seemed endless. Yet she soldiered on. After waiting over a year she had her surgery this past March. Now sheâs kicking butt again. Every time I see her I am reminded of Carly Simonâs song ãHavenât Got Time for the Painä.

There are many people like Mr. R., dying of cancer yet more concerned about his familyâs welfare than his own. Mr. H., the World War II vet with inoperable kidney and lung cancer continues on with his life. Despite his slow deterioration he is determined to remain independent.

Obstetrics has been a part of my practice for over 12 years. Melanie is expecting her second child in the next few weeks. Her first pregnancy ended tragically at 37 weeks gestation when the placenta failed. There was no warning. She had to be induced to deliver the baby. The second pregnancy required induction at 36 weeks because of low fluid level within the uterus (oligohydramnios). She bore a healthy son. As she passes the 37 week mark she is terrified that history will repeat itself.

As far as Iâm concerned every mother is a hero. Dealing with the daily physical, social and emotional demands of life while pregnant, caring for her children and the million other responsibilities is Herculean. And itâs not called labour for nothing.

The caseroom nurses at the Ottawa General Hospital are truly exceptional. Despite understaffing problems they continue to provide a level of patient care that is second to none. Their dedication to their patients under the most trying of circumstances is inspiring.

Heroes inspire us to never give up, to persevere in our endeavours. Children learn that true success in life comes from humility, respect and dedication. How many of us have sons or daughters that look up at us with eyes full of wonder and admiration? Often we witness young children bragging about their parentsâ accomplishments to their friends.

Children have a limitless capacity to love their parents. The love we have for our children impacts their lives in many subtle ways. Even when there is no great denouement, no major accomplishment, being a good loving parent is enough to be your childâs hero. People demonstrate day after day that you do not have to hit 70 home runs, win accolades or awards or be a millionaire to qualify.

© Dr. Barry Dworkin 2002

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