The Invisible Man

After his fall, my husband was hospitalized with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a very high blood-alcohol level.  Given those two factors, complicated by the immaciated body and unshaven, unclean person that emergency room workers were presented with, it was clear he was being labeled  a deralict.  Not on paper; not out load; but in the minds - and behavior - of the staff charged with his care.

I'm not condemning nor condoning the health care professionals who treated him.  I'm certain they have countless souls come through the doors of the emergency room who are indeed deralict; who have nothing and nobody and the bottom of a bottle is the only goal in their life.  This was different.  But how do you express that without sounding defensive?  How do you express that without them looking at you and thinking, "so how did you allow this happen?  Feeling guilty now, are we?" 

One of the psyhiatrists evaluating my husband called me at home one day.  She asked a few questions and then shared a personal experience she had with her father.  "Your husband reminds me of my dad," she said.  "He insisted he didn't have a drinking probelm; that he just enjoyed a good bottle of wine now and then."  Hum.  I don't think four of five bottles a day is representative of most wine enthusiasts, but she understood what we were dealing with.  After discussing my husband's history and life with her, she made a suggestion that changed the way he was being preceived by his caregivers.  

For the most part, doctors, nurses and aids in hospital detox wards and most rehabilitation centers don't "engage" with their patients, and for good reason.  They are human after all, and the wear and tear on one's emotional health wouldn't help the patient and could cause lasting damage to the caregiver.  The invisible men and women are treated symptomatically. But what if this person wasn't invisible to them?  What if they knew something more about that patient?  Here is what our family did to introduce the person.

We created a short bio of my husband's life and gave copies to everyone who came in contact with him.  It was taped to his door and pinned to the bulletin board in his room.  Everyone, from doctors to housekeepers were exposed to it. 

It started with "Hi, my name is ____________ and my friends call me Fifi.  I was born in France.  I retired a few years ago as a senior executive with a global pharmaceutical company.  I've lived all over the world and am fluent in seven languages.  I am married and have four beautiful daughters."

The transformation in attitudes was immediate.  He was no longer an incoherent, slobbering, incontenent old man.  He was a person with a brilliant past and a family who loved him.  They started addressing him by his nickname.  The staff with non-English speaking families began speaking to him in French, Spanish, German.  It brought him out of the shadows.  He was no longer invisible.

The greatest reward was seeing how it speeded his recovery.  When a person is treated indifferently, they become indifferent.  When a person is treated with caring and compassion they want to be the best person they can be.

Shortly before we brought my husband home, the nuerologist who had been monitoring the brain damage made an interesting observation.  He told us he had patients with far less brain damage who were completely nonfunctional.  Yet here was a man who's native intellegence, aligned with his education and support system, was managing better than anyone would have imagined possible.  He was literally making himself behave in a way he knew - somewhere in the back of his damaged mind - was how he was supposed to behave.






Karen Lee


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