By Michael Morse
Three of his 12 kids hovered around him, making sure we did everything right.
“He’s a great dad,” one of his daughters said as we gently secured him to the stair chair.
“Obviously,” I replied, noting the concern on the family’s faces. It’s gratifying to see people come together at times like these, a true testament to the character of the patient entrusted to my care.
He had a brief period of unresponsiveness before we arrived. His blood pressure was high, 168/120, his heart racing at nearly 150 beats a minute. Skin warm and dry, he must be fighting an infection of some sort.
“How are you feeling, Joe?” I asked.
“He has Alzheimer’s,” said another of his daughters. “He comes and goes. Right now he’s not aware of anything.”
The family members stood back as we wheeled him out of his home, the place he raised 12 children. I imagined the living room as it used to be, orderly chaos, kids things, books, crayons, and toys rather than medical equipment and empty space.
He met his wife in Portugal some 70 years ago. He was a fisherman; she knew he was special. They shared a love that spanned seven decades, and though she is gone from this earth, their love continues just as strongly as it began a lifetime ago. More of their children arrived at the home as we got ready to transport him to the hospital, their cars parked at odd angles along the busy, snow-covered street. He managed to look me in the eye as I carried him down the freshly shoveled front stairs and into the cold.
“How long has he had Alzheimer’s?” I asked the daughter who accompanied us in the rescue.
“About a year and a half,” she replied, leaning over to hold his hand. He stared intently at his daughter as we drove.
“Have you been able to communicate with him at all?”
“We communicate just fine,” she smiled. “We’re not ready to let him go, not yet.”
“Joe,” I said, shaking his shoulder from my seat behind him. “Are you in any pain?”
I didn’t think he would answer, but you never know.
“He can’t hear you,” said his daughter, never breaking eye contact with her dad.
“He was born deaf and mute.”
Great dad, indeed.
Life is funny, people like me, people who can talk and hear, choose to listen when it’s convenient and talk only when it is absolutely necessary. We get by, never truly expressing ourselves, leaving a mystery where understanding could be. Our families will never be able to read our minds, never “just know” how much we love them, how everything we do is for them, how we would give up everything for them. They don’t “just know” that who we are is a direct result of our relationship with them and without them we would be lost.
I sat in silence and witnessed two people communicate in a way I never imagined possible. A man who never spoke a word, or heard a word spoken to him, had managed to father 12 children, raise them well, and let them know exactly how important they were to him.
A crowd waited for us at the emergency room, most of his kids, their spouses, some grandchildren and friends. Whether or not he was aware of the entourage is a mystery. What mattered to me was the entourage being aware of him, and showing up, even though they were painfully aware that he would never know they were there.
Or would he?
The family had to wait in the waiting room while I gave my report to the triage nurse. Joe sat on the stretcher, his time almost through. I thought of all the people who I brought to this place, many never leaving, and how alone they were. People like me, with sight, and hearing, and voices used far too infrequently.
I have a choice. I can muddle through my days at work, bring faceless people with the same old problems to the hospital, never connect, never be inspired, and never get involved. Or, I can absorb every bit of humanity I can from the people in my care and learn how to be a better person. Some days it makes sense to not bring the job home with me. Some days the job allows me to understand just what home is.
Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.